‘The Bad Sleep Well’: Generally overlooked Akira Kurosawa corporate corruption drama deserves to be better remembered
Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well / Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru is often compared to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but that’s an inapt analogy. While Shakespeare’s play has a higher sense of poetry, Kurosawa’s black-and-white 1960 film – though a high-class melodrama – has far more relevance, realism, and complexity.
Its purported Shakespearean pedigree and the fact that it’s not set in medieval Japan have resulted in The Bad Sleep Well not getting its proper due, especially when compared to the acclaim accorded to Rashomon, Ikiru, and Seven Samurai. That’s unfortunate.
Effective melodrama with chilling conclusion
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 (screenplay credited to Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Eijirô Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni) and superbly paced.
In its opening sequences at a corporate wedding, fully Westernized to the tune of “Here Comes the Bride,” we find jackal-like members of the press reminiscent of the paparazzi in Federico Fellini’s masterpiece La Dolce Vita (released earlier in the year). Because of a budding scandal, the reporters are ready to pounce on any irregularity. A subsequent montage of newspaper headlines puts to shame those used in pre-World War II Hollywood gangster films.
The bulk of The Bad Sleep Well‘s narrative setup is thus displayed and allowed to unravel for the next two hours. Yet the plot hardly ever follows the standard melodramatic arc of having the characters’ dumbest possible actions dictate its development. 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 Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove are more disturbing.
Things not as they seem
The storyline follows corporate executive Koichi Nishi (a bespectacled Toshiro Mifune), who is not the person he claims to be. Married to Yoshiko (Kyôko Kagawa), the crippled daughter of Public Corporation Vice President Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori), Nishi comes across as a nepotistic corporate climber. It turns out that he is instead the bastard son of an executive who was forced to commit suicide following a prior scandal. Slowly, methodically, Nishi has planned his vengeance against the corporate leaders.
Iwabuchi – whose company is under scrutiny because of a kickback scheme – 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 the head accountant Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara), another corporate officer who apparently has committed suicide. Things, however, aren’t all what they seem to be.
Festering corporate corruption ‘almost childish’ when compared to 21st century
The Bad Sleep Well does a wonderful job of showing the festering corruption that is an inevitable consequence of the profit-oriented corporate mindset that slacks off public responsibility, 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’s the long-cowed Wada who is correct.
The saddest thing is that the corruption detailed in The Bad Sleep Well feels 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 his company, 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 20th century were so easily able to lead their country down the path to near-oblivion.
‘Wonderful moments and performances’
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 as Iwabuchi’s other daughter, Tatsuo; and the hammy, enigmatic Takeshi Katô as Nishi’s partner. Even so, The Bad Sleep Well truly belongs to Toshiro Mifune.
Toshiro Mifune at his best
Unlike his (however terrific) wildly over-the-top work in Rashomon and Seven Samurai, in The Bad Sleep Well Toshiro 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 his tenderly restrained love scenes with Yoshiko.
Nishi’s internalized anguish allows Mifune to act with small instead of grand gestures; as a result, scenery-chewing gives way to real acting. Of the roles I’ve seen him in, this is by far Mifune’s best.
Curiously, it takes a good half hour before Nishi emerges as the film’s central character and puppet master. That’s how much confidence Akira Kurosawa had in his cinematic and narrative talents – imagine a Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts star 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.
A ‘masterpiece’ on a par with ‘Ikiru’ & ‘Seven Samurai’
In all, The Bad Sleep Well is an excellent film; it’s every bit as worthy of being called a masterpiece as Ikiru and Seven Samurai. If only because of Rashomon‘s weak last act, Kurosawa’s 1960 corporate drama 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 often rests only on the excellence of its presentation. On that score, The Bad Sleep Well is great drama.
And in the real world, the bad do sleep well.
‘The Bad Sleep Well’ DVD
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 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 Bad Sleep Well while the latter a strained attempt at, yet again, linking the film to Hamlet.
The Bad Sleep Well review text © Dan Schneider. The Bad Sleep Well image captions © Alt Film Guide.
Note: This review of Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well is a condensed/revised version of Dan Schneider’s text, which can be read in its original form at cosmoetica.com. The views expressed in the review are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.
The Bad Sleep Well / Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru (1960)
Dir.: Akira Kurosawa.
Scr.: Akira Kurosawa. Shinobu Hashimoto. Eijirô Hisaita. Ryuzo Kikushima. Hideo Oguni.
Cast: Toshiro Mifune. Takashi Shimura. Masayuki Mori. Kyôko Kagawa. Tatsuya Mihashi. Kô Nishimura. Takeshi Katô. Kamatari Fujiwara. Chishu Ryu. Ken Mitsuda.
The Criterion Collection website.
The Bad Sleep Well cast info via the IMDb.
Toshiro Mifune and Kô Nishimura The Bad Sleep Well image: The Criterion Collection.
Toshiro Mifune The Bad Sleep Well image: The Criterion Collection, via the happyotter blog.
“The Bad Sleep Well: Generally Overlooked Akira Kurosawa Corporate Corruption Drama Merits Recognition” last updated in August 2018.