The recent death of Akira Kurosawa was a loss to cinema in a way the death of only a few directors could be. Kurosawa was a giant, a masterful storyteller and visual stylist with a feel for humanity to match his other talents. Best known for a handful of masterpieces, most of them set in the age of the Samurai, he also made films set in contemporary Japan, one of which has recently been re-released in a remastered, letterboxed edition with new subtitles. Adapted from a novel by American pulp writer Ed McBain (whose real name is Evan Hunter), 1963's High And Low stars Toshiro Mifune (naturally) as a properous, principled shoe-company executive. On the verge of taking over the company from a group of less ethical co-workers, Mifune learns that a kidnapper demanding a financially ruinous amount of money has his son. When it's discovered that the kidnapper has mistakenly taken the son of Mifune's loyal chauffeur, Mifune is faced with a dilemma that tests his selflessness. High And Low is uncharacteristically stagey in its first half, which is also, paradoxically, its most compelling. The mere fact that Mifune pauses to deliberate his decision could easily make him unsympathetic, but he and Kurosawa never allow that to happen; his deliberation is painful to watch. He knows what, as a moral person, he has to do, but he also knows the personally disastrous consequences. The second half, an interesting portrayal of the police investigation following the kidnapping, largely abandons the class issues raised earlier in the film, and is most notable for its unusual portrayal of Japan's drug underworld. It's well done, but lacks dramatic tension until it arrives at an unforgettable final scene. While not a masterpiece on par with Kurosawa's best work, High And Low is a fine example of his craft, and further proof that it's not a few masterpieces but the overall scope of a career that defines a great director.

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