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Kurosawa's Modern Drama High and Low Surfaces on DVD

Toshiro Mifune, Kyoko Kagawa, Tatsuya Nakadai, Tatsuya Mihashi, Takashi Shimura. Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (letterbox). Mono. 143 minutes. 1963. The Criterion Collection 24. NR. $39.95.

One of Akira Kurosawa's few modern-day dramas is also one of his best. High and Low confirms his preoccupation with the issues of truth, morality, and the human predicament, and exposes the moral decay that surrounds the protagonists, both high and low—this time in a thriller based on the novel King's Ransom, by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter).

Kingo Gondo (the superb Toshiro Mifune) plays a shoe magnate involved in a power struggle with the company's other bigwigs, who are intent on cutting costs and quality. Gondo, as much an idealist as a pragmatist, puts up his possessions as collateral for a loan that will help him buy control of the company, but this honest man loses when he decides to pay a kidnapper to spare the life of his chauffeur's son.

When the boy is returned, the police, under the relentless Inspector Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai), conduct a painstaking search for the kidnapper, a drug-addicted medical student—a murderous fiend who operates in the Tokyo netherworld of nightclubs and dope alleys. Kurosawa pits the greed of the company's chiefs against the kidnapper's envy of Gondo's affluence (which makes him the chosen target), concluding that moral decay can affect both rich and poor, old and young. Gondo's righteousness in sacrificing his career and wealth for the life of a child not his own makes him a popular hero and ultimately rewards him, but it doesn't come without conflict. At first, he holds on to his hard-earned cash as obstinately as anybody.

Although labeled the most Western of the great Japanese filmmakers, Kurosawa depicts his nation's culture in a manner that remains his alone. Not only do we get to study the work methods of the Japanese police, with its non–ego-driven detectives following every minute lead, but we get to glance into the living rooms of Japanese society's pillars and outcasts. We see how the values of responsibility, obligation, and respect for tradition—all of which hark back to the Samurai code of honor—still rule the older generation, and how the absence of such values leads to the bankruptcy of the young.

The first half of the movie takes place in Gondo's apartment and features no more than half a dozen characters at a time. Amazingly, it is never static or claustrophobic. But the second half, in which a fluidly moving camera relentlessly explores Tokyo's filth and sleaze, feels almost oppressive, oxygen-deprived. Similarly, Kurosawa uses music—or its absence—to indicate his personal seal of approval. There is no background music in the first part, no attempt to enhance the drama, while in the second half, incongruous music (such as "O sole mio!") is simply another metaphor for moral decay. Finally, Kurosawa uses the Tohoscope format to advantage, integrating moral tensions, the complexities of Japanese society, and elements of the thriller into nothing short of a transcendental experience.

Technically, this new digital transfer from a new 35mm composite print is impeccable, with sharp images and good contrast. The focus is unfailing. The mono sound, however, is a bit inconsistent—sometimes too low, at other times too high. The electronic subtitles are intelligently presented under the frame, leaving the image unspoiled.

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