Akira Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well (Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru, 1960) is one of the acclaimed director's most accomplished works, and yet it is vastly undervalued in the West. Partly this is due to the film's contemporary setting; back in the 1960s and to some extent even today people expect Japanese movies to be either colorful historical pageants or violent chambara with lots of swordplay. The very idea of iconic warrior rogue Toshiro Mifune leafing through receipts in a three-piece business suit is simply unimaginable for the narrow-minded gorging on Yojimbo and Musashi Miyamoto. Others acknowledge The Bad Sleep Well's phenomenal first-third while pointing to its flawed, somewhat melodramatic last act as their reason for rating it just below other Kurosawa classics from his spectacularly fruitful 1948-1965 period.
The film opens at an alarmingly chaotic, ultimately farcical wedding reception, where Koichi Nishi (Mifune), the executive secretary to Public Corporation Vice President Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori), has just married Iwabuchi's crippled daughter, Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa). The happy celebration is rocked by an undercurrent of scandal. Yoshiko's playboy brother, Tatsuo (Tatsuya Mihashi), threatens to kill Nishi if he mistreats her, and two of Public Corp.'s executives, Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara) and Miura (Gen Shimizu) are arrested right there in the wedding hall in connection with a kick-back scandal. And, most spectacularly of all a huge wedding cake, a meticulous recreation of a utilitarian government office building is wheeled in as a shocked Iwabuchi and his underlings - Moriyama (Takashi Shimura) and Shirai (Ko Nishimura) - look on in horror. A rose sticks out of a vanilla-frosted, seventh-story window - the very window from where five years before a Public Corp. executive had jumped to his death.
Forty-five years after The Bad Sleep Well was released, in 2005, two huge scandals dominated the national headlines in Japan. The first was a pervasive bid-rigging scheme involving the use of public funds in the construction of bridges, the particulars of which mirror those in Kurosawa's film almost exactly. The second and more disturbing involved revelations that an architect had falsified earthquake resistance data (presumably at the behest of the construction companies he worked for) on dozens of condominium buildings and hotels, all of which will now have to be torn down. The owners of these brand-new condominiums, mostly retirees and young families, not only have to bear the cost of moving into new apartments but, incredibly, by law they are expected to continue making monthly payments to the very companies directly responsible for their financial ruin.
It's corruption like this and the policies that see these corporate heads go unpunished that fueled Kurosawa's passion for this bold expose of corporate nefariousness, and its ties to the ruling political party (still in power today). It's an incredibly daring film, and only a director with the commercial and critical clout of Kurosawa could have made it then, and why such a film is almost inconceivable today.
The electrifying wedding sequence, essentially adapted by Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather (1972), ingeniously introduces the characters and their relationships to one another in a manner that doesn't seem play like the exposition it is. The ironic Greek Chorus, the cynical reporters covering the event, is inspired. (Koji Mitsui and Toho stock company player Yoshifumi Tajima are very good here.) Indeed, everything from composer Masaru Sato's "corporate jungle" themes to the uniformly exceptional performances, even in tiny parts, is terrific.
Often overlooked but exquisitely done are Nishi's scenes with wife Yoshiko, a woman he married solely to enter Iwabuchi's inner circle. As much as he hates Iwabuchi he can't help but fall in love with his daughter, and this eventually proves his undoing. Kurosawa always liked to say that he was clueless in handling love scenes and scenes involving women, but several key moments in The Bad Sleep Well prove just how wrong he was. Early on there's an intelligently-blocked sequence where playboy brother Tatsuo, concerned that Nishi is using his sister to climb the corporate ladder, changes his opinion when in another room she stumbles. Nishi and Tatsuo both dash to catch her, but Nishi reaches her first, thus convincing Tatsuo that he was wrong about his brother-in-law. A later, final love scene brings Nishi and Yoshiko together but they are symbolically separated by some knee-high masonry. Not until his last film, Madadayo (1993), also with Kyoko Kagawa, would Kurosawa direct something so tender.
The title, of course, refers to the fact that the Bad Men of the world sleep soundly because they have no conscience. The crux of the film's story, loosely suggested by Hamlet, is that for Nishi to exact his revenge he must himself become bad, even though it's against his nature. Indeed, he must carry around a photograph of his father's mangled corpse and stare into it intensely to maintain his hatred and "badness." When his actions impact innocent bystanders such as Yoshiko, Nishi can no longer sleep well, and this is why his grand plan cannot succeed.
The film is so crammed with ingenuity multiple viewings are recommended. There's a dichotomy that runs through the picture: Iwabuchi is both a Bad Man and a Good Father; he himself seems oblivious to this terrible irony. Tatsuo is an irresponsible playboy yet he is exceedingly protective and responsible regarding his sister. The most loyal employees at Public Corp. are also those most likely to be sacrificed by their superiors. Nishi is actually Itakura, who assumes the former's identity, just as the real Nishi (Takeshi Kato) becomes Itakura, who eventually is trapped into forever remaining someone he is not. And so on.
If the film's highly pessimistic ending fails to entirely work, it is at least honest. Nishi fails just as Kurosawa failed in his aim to affect change by nakedly exposing corruption. In today's climate, where corporations have gone from allying themselves to governments to essentially becoming the government, Kurosawa's pessimism no longer seems quite as overwrought as it once did.
Video & Audio
The Bad Sleep Well is presented in its original Toho Scope wide screen format of approximately 2.35:1 in a 16:9 enhanced transfer. The image is fine throughout, and the widescreen format is essential because of Kurosawa's aggressive use of the entire frame. The ugly optional English subtitles are unnecessarily and completely positioned over the frame, thus obscuring many compositions. Why they weren't positioned lower on the image (i.e., in the black space below) is a mystery. The Dolby Digital 1.0 sound is a disappointment, given that the film was originally encoded with Perspecta Stereophonic Sound, a limited but fun directional process previously adapted for Criterion's DVD of The Hidden Fortress (1958). Toho rarely took full advantage of the process' capabilities, but it's a shame it was dropped altogether for this release. (Toho Video's DVD in Japan was released with three Dolby Digital audio options: 1.0 mono, "2.3 channel stereo," and a "3.5.1 channel remix.")
Criterion unfortunately cut back on this release's supplements compared to their other Japanese titles. Included is another entry in Toho Video's Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create, first seen on that label's DVD release in 2003. This 36-minute, 4:3 featurette is loaded with information about the film's production and telling, amusing anecdotes. Among the interviewees are cinematographer Takao Saito, art director Yoshio Muraki, script supervisor Teruyo Nogami, and actors Kyoko Kagawa, Tatsuya Mihashi, Kunie Tanaka (whose third film this was), Takeshi Kato (a delight) and, in an audio interview, Ko Nishimura, who died in 1997. It's particularly nice to see actor Mihashi, who himself died in 2004, talk with great modesty about his performance.
Also included is an original trailer that's fully subtitled but 4:3 letterboxed. The documentary includes 'scope footage of Kurosawa on location. Whether this is derived from a different trailer or perhaps a newsreel is unknown, but it would have been interesting to see it in its complete form.
Finally, there's a 14-page booklet, which includes a short list of credits, chapter stops, info about the transfer, and brief essays by Chuck Stephens and Michael Almereyda. .
Any serious student of Japanese cinema should rush out and see The Bad Sleep Well, one of the very best films from one of the art's great masters.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes his own biography of Japan's greatest filmmaker, The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.