High and Low - Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review
High and Low is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Black bars at the top and bottom of the screen are normal for this format. This high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit 4K Datacine from a 35 mm fine-grain master positive and, for the colour sequence, a 35 mm interpositive. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS system and Pixel Farm’s PFClean system, while Digital Vision’s DVNR system was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction.
High and Low comes to Region A-locked US Blu-ray courtesy of the Criterion Collection with a superior 1080p High Definition transfer that looks surprisingly good considering the movie’s age. Criterion have previously worked wonders with many of Kurosawa’s films, including the Yojimbo/Sanjuro double-pack, but their rendition of Seven Samurai, whilst good, was not quite as amazing as some of their other work. Thankfully High and Low looks significantly better. Detail is generally very good indeed, but it does often vary from scene to scene – some sequences looking absolutely stunning, with commendable clarity; whilst others have more softness than you would expect or want. There’s a noticeable level of grain coursing throughout, which gives the film a wonderfully cinematic image. The print itself is surprisingly clean, bereft of damage, defects and digital tinkering. The black and white presentation has allowed a great deal of depth to remain intact over the passing decades, with high level contrast apparent throughout, blooming whites at the top end (occasionally a little bit too bright), and solid blacks at the bottom end, making for decent shadowing and night sequences. Overall this was still never going to quite make reference quality material, but, a half-Century on, Criterion have still brought this Kurosawa classic back to us in true style.
The 4.0 surround soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the original 4-track stems. Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.
The accompanying DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that Criterion have provided also does extremely well with the original material. A dialogue-driven affair, for the most part, the dialogue gets keen presentation across the frontal array, coming through the fronts and centre channels with the kind of clarity and resonance that you simply would not expect from a 48-year-old Japanese black-and-white thriller. Effects are reasonably subdued for the most part, although there are several noteworthy scenes where they are given greater prioritization – the tense train sequence, and the bustling nightclub scene to name but two. During these moments the surrounds get far more to do (and even the LFE channel kicks in to provide some accompaniment), but that does not mean that they stay quiet for the entire rest of the piece – with the score keeping things moving satisfactorily for the most part, and often enhancing the proceedings and heightening the suspense. Again, far from demo quality, but also considerably more powerful and effective than many films from this period which had reached the HD format, and easily the best we will ever hear from this classic.
Once again Criterion have outdone themselves with a comprehensive selection of extras that cover all of the bases, even if they have basically all been ported over from the 2-disc SD-DVD Special Edition that Criterion themselves released a couple of years ago.
This audio commentary, recorded for the Criterion Collection in 2008, features film historian Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa and professor of film studies at Virginia Tech.
Having previously provided commentaries for numerous other Criterion Kurosawa releases, fans who have experienced any of them should know exactly what to expect from Prince. Highly studied, and having clearly conducted extensive research, his commentary is brimming with background information, even if it does come across as more dry than thoroughly engaging. Adept at discussing everything from Kurosawa’s filmmaking style and camera choices, to the production history and notes from the time, with background into the cast and crew, it’s an information-packed offering, which just lacks a little in delivery. Well worth checking out, though, if you’re a fan, it’s a pretty comprehensive offering.
Documentary – Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create
The following thirty-seven-minute documentary about the making of High and Low is part of the Toho masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. The program included interviews with director Akira Kurosawa; actors Tatsuya Nakadai, Kyoko Kagawa, Takeshi Kato, and Tatsuya Mihashi; script supervisor Teruyo Nogami; cameraman Takao Saito and Masaharu Ueda; and other cast and crew.
Also familiar to those who have picked up previous Kurosawa outing as part of the Criterion Collection, here we get the relevant segment from the Toho series on Kurosawa, this time pertaining to High and Low. This informative making-of documentary takes a restrospective look at the production of the film, with plenty of cast and crew interview snippets further detailing the filming schedule, on-set anecdotes and memories of working with Kurosawa and the superb cast on such a great movie. There is also a great deal of detail into Kurosawa’s meticulously-planned filming style, the long takes and the elaborate camera set-up which was rehearsed to perfection prior to the actual shoot.
Interview – Toshiro Mifune
In this rare interview, actor Toshiro Mifune shares stories about his life and acting career with popular Japanese TV talk-show host Tetsuko Kuroyanagi. The interview was recorded in 1981 for her show Tetsuko no heya (Tetsuko’s Room) and is presented here courtesy of TV Asahi.
It’s always great to hear from the late Mifune and – as noted above – it’s a rare experience. Here he gets to talk about the projects that he is working on (obviously, at the time), his military background, stepping into the realm of acting and the increasingly big budget productions that he has done – both with and without Kurosawa. If you’re a fan of Mifune – and who isn’t?! – then this is half an hour of compelling viewing.
Interview – Tsutomu Tamazaki
The following interview with award-winning actor Tsutomi Yamazaki, who plays the kidnapper, Takeuchi, in High and Low, was recorded for the Criterion Collection in Tokyo in 2008.
This intriguing 20-minute retrospective interview, recorded relatively recently, takes a look back at Tamazaki’s experiences participating in High and Low, shooting the slum sequences, the night club scene and, most notably, the ending (where all the originally planned dialogue was removed). Perhaps (understandably) not as compelling as the Mifune offering, this has a different, modern taste to it, and is still worth checking out.
The Japanese trailer for High and Low includes the only known footage of the original ending of the film, in which Kingo Gondo and Inspector Tokura leave the prison after Gondo’s visit with Takeuchi. This scene was removed by Akira Kurosawa in the final stages of editing. Also included here are a Japanese teaser and the U.S. trailer.
Rounding off the disc we get a selection of interesting trailers which, as stated above, give you a glimpse as to some deleted footage that was removed from the final cut.
As usual, Criterion have included a superior booklet to accompany the movie, complete with stills from the movie, as well as "Between Heaven and Hell", an interesting essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien, as well as an on-set account by Japanese film-scholar Donald Richie, who goes to great lengths to detail what he experienced on the set of this film, including plenty of background, once again, into the camera positioning and pinpoint accuracy of Kurosawa’s strategic cinematography. Great coffee-table background reading, this lovely booklet rounds off a rewarding package.
Having shown his masterful capabilities at adapting – and making his own – everything from Dostoyevsky (The Idiot; and The Insulted and Injured – Red Beard) to Shakespeare (Macbeth – Throne of Blood; Hamlet – The Bad Sleep Well; and King Lear – Ran), Kurosawa also carried over his skills to more Western-structured outings, with his classic Samurai-Western Yojimbo inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s 1931 novel Red Harvest. High and Low represents his second US-crime author adaptation (based on Ed McBain’s King’s Ransom) and once again showed just how limitless his abilities were as both a skilled director and a master cinematographer, expertly crafting another fantastic, multi-layered voyage through society, with well-rounded characterisations, pitch-perfect performances and enough tension to keep you riveted over a near-epic runtime. Seamlessly blending story arcs from two different crime sub-genres – the kidnap and ransom thriller, and the police procedural manhunt – he effortlessly forges a cinematically-styled but documentary-like masterpiece, with a weighty undercurrent of socio-political strife; cleverly observing the post-WWII class structure in Japan, whilst also paying heed to the simplistic moral imperative of man and his eighth and tenth Commandment: stealing and coveting what belongs to somebody else. With imminent relevance even to this day – and especially our current state of economically-derived social unrest – High and Low remains one of his most powerful, resonant works.
Criterion have once again outdone themselves, bringing this Kurosawa masterpiece to Region A-locked US Blu-ray complete with great video and solid audio, as well as a welcome selection of weighty extras. There is no question that fans will want to pick this release up, it’s well worth the money if you’re capable of Region A playback. Newcomers should also consider it something of a blind buy – certainly if you’re open-minded enough to appreciate the works of Kurosawa even outside his common Samurai-driven period field. Highly recommended.
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