High and Low

Criterion supersedes its 2002 edition of Kurosawa's 1963 suspense masterpiece with this two-disc set, replete with feature-length commentary, a making-of documentary, and interviews.

High and Low

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Kyoko Kagawa, Tatsuya Mihashi, Yutaka Sada, Tatsuya Nakadai, Takashi Shimura, Tsutomu Yamazaki
Length: 143
Studio: Toho
Distributor: Criterion
MPAA rating: N/A
First date: 1963
US DVD Release Date: 2008-07-22
UK DVD Release Date: Available as import

Akira Kurosawa was nothing if not an unrelenting perfectionist, and there are many stories describing the lengths to which he would go in order to realize his own vision and ambition. The true hallmark of his 50-year career, then, is not the wide-frame staging, painterly poetics, or emotional reckoning of his characters, but simply how remarkably together his films are.

High and Low (Tengoku to jigoku, literally "Heaven and Hell"), from 1963, is no different -- though on the surface, it's essentially a genre exercise based on a pulp crime novel by Ed McBain, a conventional post-noir concept that any director could have easily spun into pulp cinema. Kurosawa, however, took that story (the son of a wealthy businessman's chauffeur, mistaken for the businessman's own son, is kidnapped and held for ransom) and turned it into something more than its surface dictated: an allegory for the charged dualism of modern-day Japan.

Kurosawa's exploration of dualism is manifested throughout High and Low's visuals and subtext, from the juxtaposition of Yokohama's affluent air-conditioned hills and seedy junkie-inhabited back alleys, to the story's moral dilemmas of right and wrong. (For this reason, and because of its stark and shadowy visual aesthetic, I find it pairs well with Carol Reed's The Third Man and Orson Welles' Touch of Evil.)

The film itself is split into two halves: the first hour takes place entirely in the living room of Kingo Gondo's house in the hills, while negotiations with the kidnapper take place over the phone; after a short middle section on a high-speed train that serves as a narrative bridge, the second half of the film follows the police as they tirelessly track down the kidnapper. Intricately composed wide shots dominate the scenes in Gondo's house, while the bustling inner-city is rendered in increasingly expressionist tones. Formally, these dualities are incredibly pleasing and allow the film to be symmetrically airtight (one ingenious sequence cuts between two cars, one framed through the front window and the other framed through the back), and symbolically, they build a rather audacious whole of polar opposite-generated friction.

This isn't to say that High and Low can't be enjoyed strictly as a bang-up suspense film, for it's arguably one of the greatest genre films ever made (even if Kurosawa never made a genre picture like it before or after). Taking some stylistic cues from Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948) in its first half, including a prolonged sense of anxiety and a fondness for long takes, High and Low's second half is a seminal prototype of the contemporary police procedural film, constructed like a jigsaw puzzle and expertly paced. (At almost two and a half hours, the film never feels like it's dragging.)

The film is staged as a series of escalating tensions that converge, divide, subside, and explode: the agony of a missing child, the kidnapper's terse phone calls, the masterful sequence aboard the speeding train, the complex paths of detection and deduction that set the cops on the kidnapper's trail. Toshiro Mifune, the DeNiro to Kurosawa's Scorsese, gives a terrifically bottled-up performance as Gondo, a high-powered, wealthy executive for National Shoes who faces certain financial ruin when he puts up 30 million yen as ransom for his chauffeur's son, Shinichi. It's Mifune's penultimate performance in a Kurosawa film, and his stockier, mustachioed appearance suggests a steely façade that Gondo has spent years perfecting -- a façade that threatens to shatter into a million furious pieces at each twist in the plot.

As such, there's a tendency -- perhaps more often in the past than now -- to unfairly dismiss High and Low as a diversion in Kurosawa's otherwise "epic" trajectory of samurai-themed existential cinema. In fact, it's one of his greatest films (it's the last truly great film from his "classic" period spanning the 1940s through the 1960s, and the second-to-last that he'd make in the '60s), a tour de force of formalism and metaphor that plays like a high entertainment think-piece.

Criterion's new two-disc edition of High and Low, an update on its original 2002 release, amplifies the film's significance with an overload of critical opinion and behind-the-scenes info. In addition to two great booklet essays by critic Geoffrey O'Brien and scholar Donald Richie, a feature-length commentary by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince proves infinitely insightful (if a wee academic in tone).

The second disc includes a documentary on the making of High and Low, which takes a detailed look at the film's production design and Kurosawa's meticulous nature, as well as individual interviews with Mifune and Tsutomu Yamazaki. Here we learn how much Kurosawa fidgeted with the fake Yokohama cityscape shimmering beyond Gondo's windows until it was just right -- so detail-obsessed, yet so attuned to the big picture.


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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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