- Rated NR
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Bob Westal
ow’s this for a moral dilemma? You’re an up-by-his-bootstraps industrialist at war with your corporate colleagues. They want to ruin the company that means everything to you by making shoddy goods. That’s okay. You’ll soon be able to sideline them all because you have a secret: you’ve been buying stock on the sly for years, and will shortly gain majority control. In fact, you’ve got the last installment in your hand — cold cash gained by mortgaging all your possessions.
Then, just as the transaction is about to be completed, a phone caller tells you that your son has been kidnapped and you must pay an amount that will make completing the transaction impossible. You agree — no sacrifice is too great for your son. But then you realize a horribly ironic mistake has been made. The kidnapped child is not yours, but your chauffeur’s. The kidnapper doesn’t care. He still wants the money and will have no problem killing the child if you don’t pay. Do you give up everything to save the life of a small boy you may not even know very well? Is just anyone’s welfare your responsibility?
That’s the horrifying ethical question facing would-be tycoon Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) in Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low.” This film from Japan’s most internationally admired filmmaker is a wrenching but clever and compelling blend of corporate intrigue, domestic drama, police procedural and social message film. Gondo makes his impossible decision while a cadre of dedicated cops, led by the charismatic young Chief Detective Tokura (Tetsuya Nakadai) and his gruff-but lovable cohort nicknamed ‘Bos’n’ (Kenjiro Ishiyama), work to save the child and bring the kidnapper to justice.
With an utterly first-rate ensemble cast led by Japan’s two best-known superstars, “High and Low” fits pretty neatly into a two-part structure, with part one focusing on Gondo’s quandary, and his various domestic and business conflicts. The second half focuses on the manhunt for the kidnapper. It’s gripping stuff that may strike you as a Japanese take on a show like “Law & Order” — and you’ll be right. “High and Low” is based on “King’s Ransom” a little-read entry in Ed McBain’s “87th Precinct” series of police procedural novels, widely considered the granddaddy of today’s many and various detail-oriented cop shows.
(I’ve actually read the book and, while I’m not telling here, the significant differences between the novel and film point out some intriguing differences between mid-century American and Japanese cultures. I will say that the novel’s protagonist, Douglas King, might have something in common with another self-made mid-century macho business guy, Don Draper of AMC’s “Mad Men.”)
Cinephiles argue about whether “High and Low” is “major” or “minor” Kurosawa, but all you need to know is that it’s a top-drawer thriller. There is no violence or action to speak of, and the deliberate Japanese-style pacing may require an extra cup of coffee, but it’s full of great moments of both humor and horror, and stunning imagery — particularly in the second half as the cops’ investigation takes them through Tokyo’s most beautiful locales and its seediest bars, and the well-beyond-seedy “dope alley” where zombified youth beg for heroin. The final meeting between Toshiro Mifune’s industrialist and the man who has nearly destroyed his life demands your attention.
Criterion Collection DVD Review:
Surprisingly for a DVD from the respected but high-priced Criterion Collection, this DVD has no features to speak of (unless color bars qualify). Worse, the decent but problematic transfer may have you playing with the color and contrast on your television set — sometimes it becomes so dark that the images are all but invisible. Even more of a problem for owners of high definition televisions, the transfer is not anamorphic, which means that the widescreen images won’t be as large as they should be. This 1998 DVD was one of Criterion’s earliest efforts and a newly remastered DVD with special features is overdue. “High and Low” is no minor movie. Are you listening, Criterion?