High and Low
I feel like my expectations for Kurosawa were overly biased by the fact that Seven Samurai is his most acclaimed film, perhaps followed by Rashomon, and they are the films I don't like. Yet he's also someone who has made one film firmly in my top-100 and two others that would certainly be in my top-250. And High and Low, my sixth Kurosawa film, joins that top-250 conversation. That means the majority of the films I've seen aren't just good but exceptionally good, so it is probably time to ignore SS the way I am capable of ignoring bad movies from most of my other favorite directors.
So High and Low is a kidnap/ransom tale. I like the time it takes before getting to that aspect, setting up Gondo's business position as a fairly upstanding guy, in spite of some hardball tactics, fighting for a company that takes pride in quality rather than simply maximizing profits. This aspect certainly has continued relevance as corporate critique but it also makes Gondo a more morally pure character so that when he is later put in a moral bind we can trust he won't simply be self-serving, but shows how difficult knowing what is right is. There is some good discussion about the ambiguity of what the right thing to do...basically game theory, trying to predict the kidnapper's response to various approaches.
The proposed choice, his business or the child, is made a bit more intense given the business culture in Japan, one where an employee tends to be tied to one employer for life and there is a sense of pride in that. So really it is the choice of his driver's child or his "child." I would add that even though one might easily say that a human is more valuable than a corporation, it isn't entirely clear that giving into the kidnappers demands are actually the right choice on its own. I actually think a lot of the complications are unnecessary because you simply can't give in to this kind of extortion, that whole "never negotiate with terrorists" thing.
I'd say a bit of a weakness, ultimately, is the continued corporate treachery on display. I felt the opening scene was all that was needed to set the stake and some of the subsequent developments just seemed to mix things up without adding anything to the ethical dilemma. But the procedural aspect of the film is tense and rewarding and surprisingly thorough. This probably could be tedious for some but I like the methodical nature of how it examines all the logical avenues of evidence. It makes you realize how horrible all the television procedurals are...well more than their obvious horribleness does. I'm not going to talk about the acting because it is all top notch.
Being a political scientist, bureaucracy speaks to me, so my inclination would be to prefer Ikiru. But as this unfolded I mostly found myself liking it more. It seems in some ways more ambitious, and perhaps even stumbles at a few points under that burden (such as deciding arresting the kidnapper and retrieving the money wasn't sufficient and that they had to prove the murders to get him executed, it doesn't seem worth the risk of losing him). This also led the film to be perhaps longer than it needed to be and that may be what keeps it out. Though the Junkie Alley scene makes me think Kurosawa could have made an awesome zombie film.
But more importantly, I have no excuses now, I need to watch more Kurosawa. Oh, and I am planning on rewatching (well, finishing for the first time after twice failing) Seven Samurai as part of this marathon, so there's always a chance for a turnaround there. Rashomon is something I've seen fairly recently and not something I see changing from my 2/5 rating.
High and Low is probably making my top-100, Ikiru may make my top-100.
Added: He did it out of economic envy/spite? Really? Are medical interns really impoverished in Japan circa this film? I know they don't make the crazy money in Japan as doctors do here but I'd say the motivation is another weakness here.