Some Japanese movies criticizing the business world were more advanced than their American counterparts. The rise of cutthroat business practices ballooned after WW2, as satirized in Yasuzo Masumura's Giants and Toys. While American exposés (Executive Suite, Cash McCall, The Apartment) were still mired in the mythology that rogue crooks were responsible for inequities, Akira Kurosawa took on the system in The Bad Sleep Well, a harrowing account of one man's bizarre crusade to bring corrupt business fat cats to justice.
Toshiro Mifune stars as the lone avenger in a business suit, quietly putting the pressure on the men he knows to be swindlers and murderers. The story's wide canvas encompasses two large companies, the prosecutor's office and the home of a top executive; and opens with a gaggle of hyperactive newsmen buzzing around scandal like flies on negotiable stock options. Akira Kurosawa's direction has a modern bite but hews closely to the form of classic tragedy. With a title like The Bad Sleep Well, we can guess that the final curtain isn't going to be sunshine and crysanthemums.
Everything worth discussing in The Bad Sleep Well is a potential spoiler. If you haven't seen the movie, I recommend you skip down to the next Horizontal Line Divider before reading further!
The Bad Sleep Well is a modern tale with Japanese executives in western dress. The traditional European Bridal March plays at the wedding of Keiko Iwabuchi and Koichi Nishi, the reserved presidential secretary to his own father-in-law. The hovering reporters provide exposition from the sidelines. Kurosawa's film finds its form in things we recognize, mainly Shakespeare's Hamlet. Nishi is pulling off a deception on a grand scale to penetrate the corporate corruption and unmask the murderers of his father. The makings of classical tragedy are everywhere, from the telltale rose in the wedding cake to Nishi's new brother-in-law Tatsuo's (Tatsuya Mihashi of High and Low and The Burmese Harp) wedding toast: He'll kill Nishi if he makes his sister unhappy.
But Nishi's commitment to vengeance is wholly unlike the situation of vacillating, insecure Danish prince. Nishi plans his revenge in a five year campaign that requires a major accomplice, a switch of identities and a cold-blooded will that would be the envy of any American comic book avenger. As Nishi himself admits when the plan is near completion, he's committed fraud, identity deception, kidnapping and extortion. But he'll go to prison happily if he succeeds in exposing the guilty executives. The Dairyu and Public Corp. honchos steal millions from taxpayers in public works kickbacks. They abuse traditional ideas of loyalty to 'suggest' that compromised employees commit suicide rather than implicate their supervisors. Nishi's more than a whistle blower, he's a modern version of a Masterless Samurai engaged in a suicidal quest for justice and retribution.
But the story gets more complicated, right from the start. To place himself in striking position, Nishi marries Iwabuchi's 'undesirable' daughter. A bicycle accident injured one of Keiko's legs, partially crippling her; Nishi's plan was to just walk away from the marriage when his mission is completed, but his deception reveals limits to his desire for revenge. Even though he's growing to love her, Nishi won't sleep with his otherwise beautiful and endearing bride. He can't bear to humiliate Keiko more than he has to.
The Bad Sleep Well has strong roots in pulp fantasy as well as noir precursors. Nishi is a lot like the French pulp avenger Judex, who spends years masquerading as the secretary to an evil millionaire in order to exact justice. Nishi's convoluted scheme is almost as fanciful. Nishi's relationship with Keiko is also reminiscent of Fritz Lang's Fury, in which Spencer Tracy pretends to be dead to carry out his revenge; he finally relents when his fiancée reawakens his conscience. Nishi's heart is also melted by the purity and forgiveness of a good woman. Subjected to the humiliation and heartbreak of an unconsummated marriage, Keiko loves Nishi enough to invest unquestioning trust in his mission, even if it threatens to destroy her family. Unfortunately, the "Bad" are all too willing to take advantage of the pure and innocent like Keiko. Fritz Lang figures again when the villain Iwabuchi is seen reporting on the phone to an unidentified superior, somone clearly not part of his corporation. The implication is that the mystery caller is a high-level government official, as in Lang's The Big Heat; the audience is invited to imagine corruption and conspiracy reaching up through society, like evil vines. 1
Large sections of Kurosawa's bizarre tale take on the trappings of a Kaidan (ghost story) in a gray flannel suit. On the slopes of a roaring volcano, Nishi manages to kidnap Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara), one of the compromised functionaries that the executives want dead. He forces the miserable little man to secretly watch his own funeral in an effort to de-program him, to break the cultural conditioning that tells Wada to accept every business directive he receives, even suggestions that he kill himself. We've already seen one bureaucrat do just that, rather than answer police questions.
The Bad Sleep Well tells its complicated story with masterful ease, making the unlikely seem credible. As in a Fritz Lang tale, every chess move by the opposing sides is determined by what has gone before. To protect their worthless hides, the utterly corrupt executives ruthlessly betray their employees -- and each other. The effect is chilling, and the finale devastating; after experiencing the blood-curdling ending for the first time, one can readily understand why The Bad Sleep Well was not a huge success. Kurosawa made other films with bleak resolutions, but even the atom-terror drama I Live in Fear is softened with a touch of lyricism. This story leaves one feeling that corruption prevails and honor and decency will always be defeated.
Toshiro Mifune anchors the film like a rock, with powerful outbursts lamenting his inability to make himself the ruthless equal of the villains he wishes to bring down. Masyuki Mori personifies the executive as social psychopath, living a home life by the barbecue while committing heinous crimes at work. Kyoko Kagawa (Tokyo Story, Mosura, High and Low) is appropriately sweet and inspiring. Kamatari Fujiwara (The Lower Depths, The Hidden Fortress) is an expert at downtrodden, miserable characters. Finally, Ko Nishimura (Red Beard, Gorath) is terrific as a Public Corp. weasel that Nishi drives mad with faked hallucinations.
Criterion's DVD of The Bad Sleep Well is a rich and sharp enhanced transfer of this very widescreen Tohoscope film. The B&W cinematography looks a bit contrasty in the first scene but soon softens into a delicate range of grays. Masaru Sato's nervous score has real punch on the dynamic 'Perspecta Stereo' track.
The extras are only a trailer and a docu, but the 33-minute docu is an excellent presentation culled from a longer career TV series on director Kurosawa. Nicely-shot color interviews give us the memories of Tatsuya Mihashi, Takeshi Kato, Kyoko Kagawa and several writers and crew members. Ko Nishimura is heard in audio recordings talking about his troubles playing Shirai, the 'haunted' executive who has to come up with shocked looks of surprise at least twenty times in the film. The tastefully-designed liner booklet has essays by critic Chuck Stephens (flippant but well-written) and director Michael Almereyda. The disc producer credit is shared by Peter Becker, Kim Hendrickson, Fumiko Takagi and Jonathan Turell.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Bad Sleep Well rates:
1. The energy scandals of the last two decades, along with aspects of several wars, may very well boil down to vast but simple 'kickback' arrangements between politicians and corrupt corporations: Campaign contributions = government contracts, collusion in fraud, cooperation in removing legal constraints and public oversight from business dealings that effect the public interest. Trying to separate corporate interests from the 'public' interest is becoming impossible, with multi-BILLION dollar war contracts awarded IN THE OPEN to favored friends and associates of officials both elected and appointed. All America needs to recover from its moral sickness is an Age of Accountability. Is this some kind of 'radical' idea, or just common sense?