The Bad Sleep Well

  • Akira Kurosawa
  • Japan  /  1960
  • Japanese
  • 135 min
October 30, 2010 by Matthew Mesaros

Keiko1 (Kyôko Kogawa), the daughter of Vice President Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori) of a government housing corporation (aptly rendered ‘Public Corp.’ in the Criterion translation), is married to his secretary, Koichi Nishi, played by Toshiro Mifune. The prologue displays the wedding reception itself in rich detail. The Japanese press arrives just before the bride and groom, apparently receiving advanced word. We learn that a scandal is about to break, one involving the highest officers of Public Corp. in collusion with a private contractor (Dairyu) to embezzle public monies in a kickback scheme, along with unsettling references to an earlier scandal that resulted in the death of an employee. The police arrive and wait patiently for the conclusion of the ceremony to issue arrests. Heads roll. The leaders of Public Corp. provide a few suitable lackeys to the police, each thoroughly questioned and released. The brass order their underlings, indirectly, to commit suicide with one of them, Miura, obliging without hesitation. Another, Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara), is saved by Nishi atop a volcano at the brink of heaving himself in to it. From here it is steadily revealed that Nishi is not as he seemed at first glance—a man climbing the corporate ladder—but rather he is prosecutor of a grand scheme of revenge against the leaders of the corporation who murdered his father, including and especially his boss and now father-in-law.

Though never acknowledged explicitly by Kurosawa, The Bad Sleep Well parallels “Hamlet” in many ways obvious and subtle. The plot itself should leap from the screen to anyone with a cursory knowledge of Shakespeare’ play: a man driven to avenge his father’s murder by destroying the perpetrator, who becomes his second father (step-father in Hamlet and father-in-law in this film). Nishi loves Keiko as Hamlet loves Ophelia, but the strength of his conviction to revenge is such that she must be sacrificed. Both stories are tragic, ending with a pile of corpses, but for The Bad Sleep Well this is not initially apparent… unless you manage to grasp all of the disparate metaphor in its opening sequence.

The more subtle parallels to Hamlet are mostly expressed in the form of dramatic irony. Kurosawa continually stresses the distinction between reality and appearances; a focus that allows him to weave so much irony in to his films, especially this one. But for Kurosawa there’s a greater metaphysical truth in this dichotomy and it forms a central thread in his thematic oeuvre. This idea is taken to the logical extreme in Rashomon, in which we see varying degrees of truth in multiple perspective. In The Bad Sleep Well he gives us a more facile, but completely relevant, version of this encapsulated in the reduction to “good versus bad.” Donald Richie notes in “The Films of Akira Kurosawa” that this is a film Kurosawa wanted to be “of some social significance”2 and as such we can’t expect him to allow viewers, particularly the Japanese of the time, to escape without ruffling a few feathers. So we find commentary here on public/private and formal/informal life—the former a blow to dogmatism, the latter to Japanese tradition.

The first twenty minutes of this picture demonstrate the genius of Kurosawa and they command considerable attention. A brief sketch:

A sign in the opening shot indicates the wedding reception of Nishi and Keiko. The camera pans left and then, fixed in a middle long shot, captures an elevator surrounded by workers waiting to greet guests. The doors open. Wedding attendees formally and casually walk through to bows on either side as the camera follows. Again pan to the left. The doors open again. Now a raucous contingency of reporters spill through, clawing their way in to the formal ceremony. They smell blood. Moments later, the arrival of bride and groom announced, wedding music cues up and from a distance Nishi, followed by Keiko, leads the procession. We see that the bride is lame, apparently due to an accident in childhood for which her brother Tatsuo is responsible; she falters.

There are at least two things to notice here: first, instead of her husband-to-be, it is Keiko’s brother who leaps to her aid. Kurosawa intimates something here of both characters to be recapitulated. Second, a bride faltering presentiments, to the Japanese and other cultures, matrimonial ruin. We have our first glimpse of story’s end. This is tragedy.

The banquet, now underway, opens to toasts from select family members and business associates. Kurosawa cleverly uses the Japanese custom of formal introduction to, well, introduce our key characters. As in other films (High And Low) Kurosawa utilizes the Shakespearean chorus—the press in this case—to distinguish truth from verisimilitude. As our cast is introduced the camera continually focuses on the commentary of our reporters, revealing more sincere and unequivocal detail. From them we learn that Iwabuchi, administrative officer Moriyama (Takashi Shimura), and contract officer Shirai were involved in a scandal five years earlier; put to rest with the apparent suicide of Assistant Chief Furuya, who fell from a seventh floor office building window. At some point the master of ceremonies says “this most auspicious of days,” which cues a cut to the reporters: “Auspicious—that’s the word all right,” using an alternative connotation for the word in reference to present company. And at that moment the chief of police does arrive. The ceremony continues unabated even though all in attendance should have a basic notion of what is occurring. Faces are pensive; unaffected, ignoring the intrusion.

Every detail of this sequence, from dialogue to composition, is carefully designed by Kurosawa to heighten irony, presentiment, and enrich our intuitive understanding of theme. At least two more instances of irony beckon appraisal. First the presentiment of the brother’s toast to bride and groom. His speech is incredibly idiosyncratic in context. It is the only honest and direct (informal) moment of the reception, resolving with Tatsuo asking Nishi to care for and love his sister with the caveat: “if you don’t… I swear I’ll kill you.” Tatsuo is instrumental in doing just that and for the reason stated, though it is not intentional but accidental. Second, a business associate from Dairyu construction proffers a few words more suited to a shareholders meeting than a wedding. “I have no formal ties with Public Corp.” he says; to which the chorus responds “Some toast. It’s like he’s pleading his case to the prosecutor.” This is perhaps the most striking irony for Nishi figuratively is the prosecutor. The symbiosis of strong narrative and pictorial irony in this brilliant sequence produces the director’s most consistent thematic duality: the real and the perceived.

So, just who is “the bad” in this film? The answer may be less obvious than you think but, typical of Kurosawa’ films, there is something to be gleaned from its title3. Clearly the calculating leaders of Public Corp. are bad, enriching themselves with public funds and willfully disposing of their associates to conceal their crimes. But what of Koichi Nishi? In pursuit of revenge he exploits his wife, he lies to her and her brother, he threatens to throw a man from a seven-story window and, most heinous, he tortures a man with starvation. This final act to extract the location of stolen money and documents from Moriyama in order to expose the evil-doing of Iwabuchi and company; in other words, he has his reasons. But so do the objects of his revenge. They justify their crimes, sure of their rectitude, as a matter of business. To be sure, Nishi, in a moment of self-discovery, recrimination and doubt, recognizes his “badness” when he says “it’s hard to hate evil. I have to hate and become hateful myself” to see his plan through. There is a sort of redemption, but it is ultimately his undoing, as it is for Mifune’s character in Drunken Angel. By resolving to renounce his heinous methods Nishi seals his own fate. So, who is worse? As Kurosawa would have wanted, the answer to that, dear reader, is for you to decide.

The Bad Sleep Well is a favorite of mine among all Kurosawa’s films, which may come as a surprise because it is practically never mentioned by anyone in the same breath with the likes of Rashomon, Throne of Blood or Seven Samurai. I understand why this is so for, in at least one way, this film is a failure. It falls short of Kurosawa’ vision articulated above, failing to convey the powerful social message for which it aimed. It seems to have succeeded in imparting an indictment of corporate corruption, weak though the indictment may be, but the fact of government corruption seems to have been diluted along the way. The corrupt corporation in this film is, indeed, a quasi-public one and I think Kurosawa meant to imply that corruption runs deep in the highest levels of government. Despite this, The Bad Sleep Well is of unparalleled compositional and thematic density among all of Kurosawa’ work.

1 Keiko is oddly rendered as ‘Yoshiko’ in the Criterion release. The nature of this translation is a mystery to me.

2 Richie’s bibliography for “The Films of Akira Kurosawa” does not clearly indicate the source of this quotation. It may come from Kurosawa’s “Something Like An Autobiography”, Toho’s mimeographed ‘autobiography’ or perhaps a personal conversation between Richie and the director.

3 A literal translation of Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru renders “The Worse You Are The Better You Sleep”. A less elegant title perhaps, but a more illuminating one.

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