High and Low (Blu-ray)(The Criterion Collection, 7.26.2011)
In several recent reviews (Diabolique, Life During Wartime), I've become preoccupied with the effect of repeat viewings. High and Low is another intriguing case study, as its exhausting suspense is largely dissipated on a second viewing. When I first saw this film years ago, I was convinced that it might be Kurosawa's best (to be honest, I've had this reaction to several Kurosawa films), but when you watch High and Low with an awareness of its outcome, its greatest virtue (suspense) is lost. To be clear, I don't think this is a weakness, just an unfortunate fact for those of us hoping to re-live that amazing first viewing. If you're gearing-up to see this incredible film for the first time, consider yourself lucky.
Once you know the outcome of High and Low, the big problem is its second half. On first viewing, there's a sense of danger everywhere. With all the variables in play, any character could be kidnapped, assaulted or even killed at any time. On repeat viewings, this second half becomes a more transparently straightforward procedural. Whereas the first half is full of moral complexity and high stakes (the survival of a young boy), the second half is really just about Toshirô Mifune's Kingo Gondo (cool name) struggling to get his money back. There's also the issue of catching the kidnapper, but since he's no longer in possession of a child, even that concern feels relatively slight.
To be honest, these are minor issues that should be of no concern to first-time viewers. Even if you have seen High and Low, there's plenty to admire in the intense performances and inventive staging. After almost fifty years, it remains one of Kurosawa's most visually interesting films, particularly the first half, in spite of (or because of) its spatial limitations. The film runs well over two hours, but you'd never know it from Kurosawa's brisk pacing and general efficiency of style.
In addition, to a terrific HD transfer -- that equals the impressive work Criterion did on Pale Flower, another stylish, black-and-white, widescreen gem from mid-sixties Japan -- we get all the extras that graced Criterion's 2008 re-issue of High and Low: essays by Geoffrey O'Brien and Donald Richie, audio commentary by Stephen Prince, a 37-minute documentary from the Toho Masterworks series, trailers, an interview with Tsutomu Yamazaki (who plays the kidnapper) and an especially entertaining archival interview with Toshirô Mifune by TV host Tetsuko Kuroyanagi (the prototypical supercool Japanese person). Overall, this an essential package for anyone with even a passing interest in the consistently great films of Akira Kurosawa. -- Jonathan Doyle