In a clear sign of their ongoing commitment to quality, the Criterion Collection improves upon yet another of their early library titles (in this case, spine No. 24), reissuing Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low” (1963) with an improved hi-def transfer and all-new extras. Buyers take note, however, as the company recently announced plans to re-release a number of its favorite widescreen titles on Blu-ray disc this fall, which begs the question whether consumers should rush out to upgrade with even better-looking editions around the corner.
Though best known for his samurai films in the West, Kurosawa alternated classic period pics with a steady flow of contemporary crime films, many of them based on American pulp fiction. “High and Low” hails from Ed McBain’s “King’s Ransom,” but adapts the story of an affluent shoe exec brought down by a kidnapping plot as a vehicle to critique Japanese culture. As the title suggests (better reflected in the original Japanese’s “Heaven and Hell”), the film alternates between characters at the top and bottom of society, ultimately forcing the proud shoemaker (played by the legendary Toshiro Mifune) to stoop to the level of his tormentor.
With the exception of a hyper-analytical new commentary by Kurosawa expert Stephen Prince, the extras serve more as research material than an extension of the entertainment itself. The Criterion team has become quite adept at uncovering vintage interviews and other insightful rarities, though these assets prove considerably drier than bonus offerings on mainstream DVDs. Prince, for his part, shares insights about Kurosawa’s shooting style, explaining how the maestro used multiple cameras to cover single-take performances, which could conceivably help newcomers appreciate one of Kurosawa’s more understated pictures.
Like David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” “High and Low” shifts its attention from the main characters to the mechanics of the procedural itself. For those unfamiliar with the director’s work, this is hardly the ideal entry with which to begin (if you see only one of his movies before you die, make it “The Seven Samurai”). But Kurosawa makes excellent use of widescreen, injecting one staggering shot of color into the feature, and this latest transfer does improve significantly on the 1998 version.