In 1959, Kurosawa obliged the Toho studio by forming his own independent production company, Kurosawa Productions. In this way, the great director would be personally responsible for his own business practices (particularly his dreaded schedule and cost overruns). Not surprisingly, the first film he chose to make under this new arrangement deals with the oppressive weight of corporate culture and its attendant personal responsibilities. The surprise of The Bad Sleep Well is its audacious scope as a startlingly relevant "social problem film" (shakai-mono)—of its time and our own—and an existential melodrama by way of Hamlet.
Kurosawa opens with a wedding scene now regarded as a quirky tour-de-force of exposition and emotional terrorism. As the parasitic press clamors for the latest news of a corruption scandal—a rigged contract between the Public Corporation for Land Development and Dairyu Construction—Dairyu's vice president Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori) oversees the marriage of his disabled daughter Yoshiko (Kyôko Kagawa) and Nishi (Kurosawa's right-hand-star Toshirô Mifune), the fiance recently anointed as Iwabuchi's personal assistant.
The comically formal wedding is first funereal and then explosively unnerving, spawning an arrest, a threatening toast ("If you make my sister unhappy, I swear I'll kill you!"), and a shocking symbol of a former Dairyu employee's spectacular suicide (the cake's the thing wherein to catch the conscience of these kings of commerce). Kurosawa and co-writers Shinobu Hashimoto, Eijiro Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni punctuate the scene with a reporter's estimation "Best one-act I've ever seen" and a promise in reply that the best (and worst) is yet to come.
For roughly half an hour, Kurosawa keeps his Hamlet a silent and apparently deferential observer, but Mifune's Nishi emerges as the orchestrator of a campaign to avenge the so-called "suicide." Unlike Throne of Blood (Macbeth) and Ran (King Lear), The Bad Sleep Well is too inventive to qualify as a straight "adaptation" of Shakespeare; nevertheless, Kurosawa cleverly borrows on our knowledge of the Bard's characters (Claudius, Ophelia, Horatio, and Laertes) and themes. One of Nishi's confederates warns, "If we hesitate, we're finished!", but the characters are often paralyzed with indecision. Madness stirs them once more into action: Shakespearean duplicity, sweet romance that quickly sours, or remorseless evil.
The ghosts are no longer literal, but equally haunting. Nishi recruits a corporate flunky named Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara), snatching him from a fall into hell—represented by a volcanic construction site—faking his death, and inviting him to observe his own funeral. Wada's trials are horrifying but darkly comic; the character also serves as the intersection of Shakespeare and noir (Noir is the name of the nightclub where Nishi records proof of Wada's betrayal at the hands of his masters). In expertly staged encounters, the ashen Wada's "ghost" unhinges former colleague Shirai (Akira Nishimura), whose increasingly skeletal frame is eaten away by soul-scorching suffering. (Nishimura and Fujiwara give brilliantly Noh-holds-barred performances.)
The wages of fear and loathing in business, and the toxic effect of corporate "families" drive a personal quest for Nishi, but the character and the director do not lose sight of the plot's larger implications. Wada insists, "You're up against a terrifying system that will never yield," but Nishi counters, "Everyone feels that way and gives up. That's how they get away with it." As in a Shakespearean tragedy, such plainly honest exchanges (and the film's premonitory title) prefigure a terrible fate. "It is pointless," Nishi insists, "trying to use the law against evil people." The only recourse is to poison big business with its own "medicine."
Nishi's mission, then, indicts himself along with his prey, and his salvation is also his sacrifice. Nishi tries to embrace his own callousness to get the job done, whistling a tune as he does his dirty work and asking Wada, "Why should you care? Aren't you happy to see him suffer?, but the journey only reveals his fatal flaw: essential goodness ("I guess I don't hate them enough").
Wada's return engagements with the evil of his former colleagues take the form of stark black-and-white contrast, but Nishi's world is disturbingly gray. In the bombed-out remains of his youthful workplace, a wartime munitions factory, Nishi calculates the cost to his unexpectedly loving bride and tries to reconcile his split personality (Kurosawa divides his framing of the factory's underground vault with a fallen beam).
The message is unmistakable: the capacity to ask the question of one's own goodness is, in itself, an answer. Though the seemingly benign, avuncular patriarch Iwabuchi "hardly looks the part of a bad guy," the vice president is, after all, a professional "front" for an even greater, unseen evil—a dragon too large to be seen and slain. Living in the calm absence of doubt, Iwabuchi and his ilk represent the post-war moral lost cause of order-takers and enablers of mass evil.
Like much of Kurosawa's output, The Bad Sleep Well can hardly be described as tightly paced, but the director uses his deliberation to crawl under the skins of his viewers. The atmospheric cinematography of Yuzuru Aizawa—proves compatible with Kurosawa's deep focus and long-take style, and the muscular acting likewise conspires to bring across the director's clear-eyed intent. Mifune, deferential in horn-rimmed spectacles, cannot help but remind American audiences of George Reeves' Clark Kent, hiding his slow-burning potency under a three-piece suit. (Indeed, The Bad Sleep Well is knowingly shot through with a Western influence as infernal as it is inspirational.)
Corruption, greed, and political aspiration; misplaced loyalties, tainted love, and whistle-blowing: two years later with High and Low, Kurosawa and Mifune would reunite for the last time to refine these themes and the attendant noir tone. The Bad Sleep Well's charms are quirkier, but no less upsetting; amazingly, the film nearly lives up to the humorous hyperbole of its theatrical trailer: "A film that will violently jolt the paralyzed soul of modern man back to its senses! A strange and deeply moving story!"
The Criterion Collection edition of The Bad Sleep Well preserves its original 151-minute running time (some versions run only 135 minutes) in a sharp transfer with a more-than-adequate soundtrack, given the film's age. As usual, the DVD production is excellent all around, with stylish menus and a 16-page booklet offering two essays to contextualize the film: Chuck Stephens' "The Higher Depths" and director Michael Almereyda's "Shakespeare's Ghost."
Criterion accompanies the film with its original Theatrical Trailer (2:55) and another installment of the series Toho Masterworks—Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create (32:32). This latest excerpt of the sprawling and invaluable documentary on Kurosawa's process and output gathers recent interviews with the great director's surviving collaborators (stars, screenwriters, and crew) and archival photographs, footage, and interviews.
One of the notable interview omissions is Kurosawa himself, but his glowing colleagues recount anecdotes of the filming and Kurosawa's feelings and intent regarding the film. The spirited nature of the documentary is vivid proof of the awe and reverence in which Kurosawa is held by his contemporaries and the younger generation now documenting his career (the unseen interviewer giggles with glee at each revelation). Criterion again gets top marks for a precious special edition of a Kurosawa classic.
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