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'The Bad Sleep Well' Review: Akira Kurosawa Classic

The Bad Sleep Well by Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa's 1960 black-and-white Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru / The Bad Sleep Well, is often compared to William Shakespeare's Hamlet, but that's an inapt comparison. While Shakespeare's play has a higher sense of poetry, Kurosawa's film – though a high-class melodrama – has far more relevance, realism, and complexity.

Written by Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Eijirô Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni, The Bad Sleep Well's Shakespearean pedigree and the fact that it's not set in medieval Japan have resulted in it not getting its proper due, especially when compared to the acclaim accorded Rashomon, Ikiru, and Seven Samurai. That is unfortunate.

Despite its melodramatic bent and film noir roots – heightened by Masaru Sato's wonderful score, which alternates the darkness of certain moments with almost carnivalesque music – The Bad Sleep Well is both well written and superbly paced.

In its opening sequences at a corporate wedding, fully Westernized to the tune of a Here Comes the Bride rendition, we find jackal-like press members reminiscent of the paparazzi in Federico Fellini's masterpiece La Dolce vita (released the previous year). Because of a budding scandal, they are ready to pounce on any irregularity. (A subsequent montage of newspaper headlines puts those used by Hollywood in pre-World War II gangster films to shame.)

The bulk of the film's narrative setup is thus displayed and allowed to unravel for the next two hours. Yet, the plot almost never follows the standard melodramatic arc of having the characters' dumbest possible actions dictate the plot. For this reason, the ending is both realistic and one of the most chilling in film history. In fact, perhaps only the Armageddon scenes in Dr. Strangelove manage to be more chilling.

The Bad Sleep Well by Akira KurosawaAfter a lengthy twenty-plus-minute setup in the wedding scenes, the plot thins out and becomes clear for the rest of the 150-minute film.

The corporate executive Koichi Nishi (a bespectacled Toshiro Mifune) is not who he claims to be. Married to the crippled daughter, Yoshiko (Kyôko Kagawa), of the VP of the Public Corporation – under scrutiny because of a kickback scheme involving the contracted company Dairyu Construction – Nishi comes across as a nepotistic corporate climber. It turns out that Nishi is the bastard son of a corporate executive who was forced to commit suicide following a prior scandal. Slowly, methodically, Nishi has planned his vengeance against the corporate leaders.

The company's vice president, Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori) is one of the most restrained and deadly screen villains in history. His assistant, Moriyama – played by the always superb Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura – is almost as evil, but far more craven. And then there's the perpetually confused and dour contract officer Shirai (Kô Nishimura), who is driven crazy by visions of another corporate officer who apparently committed suicide, the head accountant Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara). Things, however, aren't all what they seem to be.

The Bad Sleep Well does a wonderful job of showing the festering corruption that is an inevitable consequence of the corporate mindset that slacks off public responsibility for mere profit, and the particularly Japanese obsession with falling on the sword, so to speak, for one's superiors. At one point, Wada says, 'You don't understand bureaucrats. A good official never implicates a superior, no matter what the cost.' He later tells Nishi, 'You're up against a terrifying system that will never yield,' to which Nishi replies, 'Everyone feels that way and gives up. That's how they get away with it.' Ultimately, it is the long cowed Wada who is correct.

The Bad Sleep Well by Akira Kurosawa

The saddest thing is that the corruption detailed in The Bad Sleep Well feels so minor league today that it seems almost childish when compared to Enron, Worldcom, and the many others in the years since. In a sense, Iwabuchi isn't even the top criminal in the film. That title would belong to the corporation's little-seen president, Arimura (Ken Mitsuda), who, later on, when things seem to be going against the corporation, sends over a vial of poison for Iwabuchi to do himself in. Watching The Bad Sleep Well, one can see exactly how the militarists that arose in the early twentieth century were so easily able to lead their country down the path to near oblivion.

Detailing the minutiae of the plot of such a complex film is pretty much pointless, and would make The Bad Sleep Well seem tedious – something it's not. In fact, Kurosawa's film is rife with wonderful moments and performances. One such is the scene in which, after kidnapping Moriyama and locking him in the underground ruins of a pre-World War II munitions plant, Nishi, in a setting that evokes the finale in The Third Man, reminisces about the pre-War days.

The cinematography, by longtime Godzilla series mainstay Yuzuru Aizawa, is superb. The scenes in which Nishi and Wada drive Shirai mad are masterful examples of black-and-white lighting that rival those found in the works of Carl Theodor Dreyer. As a plus, the acting is first rate: there's the always reliable Takashi Shimura; the perfectly restrained evil of Masayuki Mori, the wonderfully over-the-top looniness of Kô Nishimura; the stellar cravenness of Kamatari Fujiwara; the semi-incestuous off-kilter performance of Tatsuya Mihashi; and the hammy, enigmatic Takeshi Katô. But The Bad Sleep Well truly belongs to Toshiro Mifune.

Unlike his (however terrific) wildly over-the-top work in Rashomon and Seven Samurai, here Mifune gets to display the full range of his acting chops – his disguise as a corporate secretary, his acts of kindness that ultimately do him in, and in his tenderly restrained love scenes with Yoshiko. In fact, Nishi's internalized anguish allows Mifune to act with small instead of grand gestures, and scenery chewing gives way to real emoting. Of the roles I've seen him in, this is by far Mifune's best.

Curiously, it takes a good half hour of the film's unfolding before Nishi emerges as the central character and puppet master. That's how much confidence Kurosawa has in his cinematic and narrative talents, for imagine a Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts vehicle going a half hour into the plot without a major scene for them. Mifune was a major star in his day, but the film itself is always bigger.

The Criterion Collection's The Bad Sleep Well DVD is shown in a 2.35:1 widescreen ratio, with white subtitles. The tremendous amount of white in the film, especially in the wedding scenes, makes the white subtitles very difficult to read. Also included on the DVD are a trailer and a 33-minute episode of the documentary series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create, in which is discussed the making of The Bad Sleep Well.

The DVD insert includes two essays: one by Chuck Stephens of Film Comment, and one by director Michael Almereyda. The former is a lightweight take on the film and the latter a strained attempt at, yet again, linking the film to Hamlet.

Despite such senseless flagellations, The Bad Sleep Well is an excellent film, and every bit as worthy of being called a masterpiece as Ikiru and Seven Samurai. If only because of Rashomon's weak last act, The Bad Sleep Well is actually better than that universally acknowledged classic. Despite the melodrama, it's also far better than nearly every American film noir I've seen.

If Shakespeare teaches one thing it's that the difference between true drama and melodrama is often only the excellence of its presentation. On that score, The Bad Sleep Well is great drama. After all, in the real world the bad do sleep well.

© Dan Schneider

Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru / The Bad Sleep Well (1960). Dir.: Akira Kurosawa. Scr.: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Eijirô Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni. Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Masayuki Mori, Kyôko Kagawa, Tatsuya Mihashi, Kô Nishimura, Takeshi Katô, Kamatari Fujiwara, Chishu Ryu, Ken Mitsuda.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.

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