- I may not be quite ready to make it yet, but I think there’s a legit argument to this being Kurosawa’s greatest single work—and his 1960’s being even stronger than his run during the 1950’s
- Opens with something as innocuous as stock prices and women’s shoes—but it is clear that this has something more going on – more so than even the brilliant kidnapping procedural—Kurosawa is making a dueling statement on an imbalanced social standing between the upper and lower class (choosing height specifically here for that comparison) as well as the inherit evil in the nature man (this pervades his entire body of work and is no exception here)
- Mifune plays Gondo—a business executive who lives in a house on a hill (or is it an apartment high-rise- hard to tell). He’s intense– a perfect Mifune vehicle- one of his best performances and he’s in less than half the film
- Kurosawa’s use of widescreen (tohoscope) 2.35 : 1 aspect ratio– deep focus black and white composition has never been stronger. I’m not sure Welles is superior to Kurosawa. The first 56 minutes are shot essentially in one room—in his home. Kurosawa has these bodies just posing in the frame like a moving painting. You could just randomly pick any moment in the first 56 minutes—pause the frame—and print it out and put it on your wall. Aki Kaurismäki would have a one of these, or a few at most in a film and I’d put it in the top 10 of the year. There are 25 here in the first 56 minutes.
- When Mifune is on the phone, he’s center middle, the wife is background left, the assistant background right at 14 minutes. There are a great many of these with characters gathered around a phone, blocking each other perfectly
- At 26 minutes we get one of his greatest paintings—nine figures in the frame including Mifune background center on the step up in his apartment
- Another at 29 minutes, and again at 30 minutes- bodies staggered through the frame—spectacular, it is Visconti. Kurosawa uses a couch to divide the frame, the step to create like stadium seating elevation
- At 37 minutes- Mifune is center background facing the camera—four detectives and the back of his head (a shot Kurosawa would do often in his 1960’s work that just isn’t there in the 1950’s)- two of the detectives on each side
- More – they come flying at you– the phone call with Mifune in the background right and the three detectives lined up on the foreground left
- Deep focus compositions– absolute mastery—this is Kurosawa’s single greatest contribution
- It is no mistake that the boy taken is Mifune’s characters chauffeur- class- this would make a great double-bill with Bong’s Parasite
- The first 56 minutes are in that one room. Then it turns into this razor sharp, methodical breakdown of a man-hunt. Unit by unit the details of the evidence are given. It’s Fincher’s Zodiac. Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. Intelligent, meticulous.
- The train sequence is a short film thriller—riveting intensity, accented ambient noise
- Though the compositions don’t fly out as rapidly as the first 56 minutes- there are jaw-droppers galore in the second half. One at 63 minutes with the four detectives in the foreground facing away from the camera while Mifune is in the deep background embracing the son of his chauffeur as they retrieve him
- The view of the Gondo mansion on the hill in deep focus from the point of view of the kidnapper’s slum dwelling window… window views and class, physical and social elevation in the town – this is Parasite– there’s a comment from the detective (they admit they didn’t like Gondo at first) about how he would hate that house too if he lived there (I’m paraphrasing)
- A saga- LA Confidential, Chinatown come to mind—but Vertigo and Blow-Up are essentially systematic crime procedurals as well.
- Again stadium seating of the reporters at the press conference to get heads in the frame
- At 110 minutes— another immaculate composition—the five heads in the frame facing the high rise window—pink smoke in the skyline. The use of color in a black and white film – this is before Rumble Fish and Schindler’s List obviously
- There’s another pretty dazzling 30 minute sequence of cat and mouse with the kidnapper at the jazz club and in dope alley. He’s wearing these striking reflective sunglasses. The photography is so crisp- it is like you’re watching Sin City. He’s voiceless, and largely, Kurosawa lets the chase play out without much dialogue at all in wide screen with bodies (blocking each other to make gorgeous compositions) in the frame
- There’s a nice scene with a window making a frame within the frame in dope alley
- At 131 minute the three cops chasing him, pretending to be junkies, are in the foreground of the frame in profile/parallel—and in the background second floor window the man with the glasses- a knockout of a shot
- It is Kurosawa, so there is no happy ending of course. Mifune sells his house, the tape says “seized property”
- Big final confrontation in the jail yields little resolution. It lacks Chinatown’s wallop of an ending – but what film doesn’t?
- A Masterpiece
This movie is in my top 2 kurosawa.
I’m confused. You said that this may be Kurosawas greatest work and you may get there in the future. Do you really think that this has potential to be a top 15 film of all time? (Since you have 7 samurai in your top 15 and you said this may be even better). If someone was to say this was Kurosawas best and a top 15 of all time movie, would they face no arguments/debate from you?
@Azman- I think Kurosawa may be more like PT Anderson or Scorsese than Ford (The Searchers) or Kar-Wai Wong (In the Mood For Love) in terms of what his “best” … though I make an order for PTA and Scorsese- I don’t have any problem if someone wants to argue for Goodfellas or Taxi Driver or Magnolia or The Master. For Kurosawa, I think there are at least four films that are extremely close. I just saw High and Low so want to let it sink in a little.
@Drake – After letting it sink for more than a while, do you think that this film is Kurosawa’s best, or if not then where does it place in your top 4?
My top 4 right now:
1. Rashomon (MP) (viewings: 3)
2. High And Low (MP) (viewings: 2)
3. Seven Samurai (MP) (viewings: 1)
4. Ikiru (MP) (viewings: 3)
@RK- Not sure- it is going to be tough when I update the top 500/1000. The Bad Sleep Well is in the mix as well.
Alright, I’m long overdue to comment on this one. Fantastic review obviously.
This film really knocked me on my ass when I saw it relatively early in my Mifune/Kurosawa study, as evidenced by my rave in the 1963 comment thread. It absolutely belongs in the conversation amongst his very best films… which by definition makes it one of THE very best films.
You bring up an interesting point about Kurosawa’s 1960s work vs. his 1950s. If comparing the two I’d say his 50s work is more visually dynamic and kinetic whereas beginning with The Bad Sleep Well his work becomes more compositionally rigorous and pictorial, culminating in the stunning High and Low and Red Beard (which we don’t need to relitigate here). Of course it doesn’t break down that cleanly because he has plenty of compositional chops on display in his 50s work and plenty of dynamism in Yojimbo and Sanjuro (and parts of the other 60s films) but the general trend I think holds.
High and Low is another one that I think is masterful across multiple dimensions, both the visual and the narrative/thematic. I didn’t mention it in my previous post, but I too saw ample Parasite comparisons, so kudos to you for noting them here.
I’ll try to go back and comment on some of the other films you reviewed during my absence, but I didn’t want any more time to pass before responding to this one. Great job.
@Matt Harris– thank you sir! I agree with you on the two trends with the two decades. There’s some overlap as you note, but yeah– there just isn’t a lot of directors that worked in the late 50’s, 60’s, widerscreen format (whether it is cinemascope, tohoscope, totalscope, etc) who designed the large format frame like Kurosawa— really it is him and Welles with the deep focus work. Remarkable. Not something I thought I’d be saying when I started the study.
I do promise not to wait another 10 years to revisit Red Beard again. haha. Anyways- thanks again for the comment.
This is probably the best place to share this. A video about High and Low that I found very useful.
@Matt Harris- just watched- thanks for sharing. Remarkable. And the fact that I may choose three totally different moments/shots from the first half of that film is a compliment to just how masterful that film/Kurosawa are
I just saw the video, very good.
I have a question for you @Matt Harris, is Kurosawa your favorite filmmaker?
Drake is Hitchcock your favorite filmmaker?
I ask this since they were his choices for best director
@Aldo- not sure I have a “favorite” director. Sorry– just isn’t something I can answer or spend time thinking about. If I were stranded on a desert island and could only have one filmmakers movies– he’d be right there with 4-5 others though.
— coen brothers, woody allen, scorsese—- all would be right there because of the depth of filmography and just rewatchability of the films.
I would 2nd the notion that this may be Kurosawa’s greatest work, although I have Seven Samurai #1. This is my #2 Kurosawa film and my personal favorite. I am not even really sure which half of the film I prefer, the 1st half with its immaculate blocking and framing or the 2nd half with its immaculate police procedural/thriller. While the 2 halves are distinctly different they still feel like they are a part of the same film, cohesive. This differs from a film such as Full Metal Jacket (1987) which has a phenomenal 1st half but (relatively) weak 2nd half and more importantly the halves feel like they are 2 different films, you don’t have that problem here.
There is an energy to this film that never lets up for even a minute and despite its 143 minute running time there are no unnecessary scenes or subplots. The narrative is tight and focused.
Mifune is obviously amazing that basically goes without saying but Tatsuya Nakadai is one of the most natural detective performances I can think of. I love the dedication to showing the intricate details of the investigation and the tactics used (it’s also cool to see old school police work predating all the modern technology used in today)
A lesser director would have found some way for Gondo to make some miraculous maneuvers to save his fortune at the 11th hour, not here and the film is better off for it.
A huge MP in my book and my #12 all time film.
@James Trapp- great point about the no unnecessary scenes or subplots
Just had a 3rd viewing of High and Low. I think I may be getting near the point where I strongly consider it a top 20 film. Incredible.
Excited to see where Kurosawa lands on your next update to the 250 greatest directors. I’m going to predict he’s top 5.
The Bad Sleep Well
High and Low
And a handful of other HR/MS. Insane.
@LeBronSmith – I ranked High and Low at # 12 on my top 100 list, only Seven Samurai ranked higher as I have it at # 3. On top of the phenomenal visual, performances, narrative,etc. I love the 2 act structure as it is so perfectly fitting for a film structured around dualities; the (literally) high up mansion vs the slums, wealthy business man vs his literally shorter chauffeur, conversation about high end quality shoes vs cheaper shoes made to not last, the greedy executives vs factory workers.
@LeBronSmith – I think you can make a case for Yojimbo as a MP as well, as much as I love Leone and Eastwood I still think Yojimbo is superior to Fist Full of Dollars, which is still a great film as well.
Yes, Yojimbo is great. I personally have it as a MP. I think Drake has it as a MS last time I checked?