Many readers are probably familiar with Kurosawa Akira’s jidaigeki films like The Seven Samurai (1954), Yojimbo (1961), and Ran (1985), period pieces full of elaborate costuming, righteous samurai, and masterfully choreographed swordplay. However Kurosawa’s films that are set in contemporary times are equally deserving of recognition. Films like Ikiru (1952) and I Live in Fear (1955) are poignant looks into the hopes and fears of post-War Japan that lack the visceral appeal of the Edo or Tokugawa period yet provide beautiful character studies of a country in transition.
One such film is 1960’s The Bad Sleep Well, a localized adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet which takes as its setting Japan during its Economic Miracle, a time of staggering growth and industrial paradigm shifts. The film focuses on corporate corruption, in particular the glad-handing relationship between governmental ministries and private construction companies.
The Bad Sleep Well opens with the marriage of Nishi Kōichi (played by a nearly unrecognizable Mifune Toshiro) and Iwabuchi Yoshiko, the daughter of the vice president of the Unexploited Land Development Corporation, a governmental land bureau. The film quickly establishes that there exist disturbing levels of corruption by having a gaggle of press crash the wedding in the hopes of catching a glimpse of construction company officials being arrested for kickbacks.
Instead, they are treated to an elaborate taunt by an unknown party, referencing a suicide committed five years prior at a governmental building. The whole sequence feels like an elaborate play and one reporter hints at the meta-levels of the film, warning that “this is only the prelude.”
Indeed, the rest of the film unfolds in a number of acts with each character playing their role; each side (that is, the corrupt governmental and corporate officials and Nishi and friends) tries to manipulate the stage for their own gain. In a sense, this is what the film is about: two foes motivated by different yet similar goals acting as ruthlessly as one another.
Despite the film’s relatively dry subject (corporate corruption and bureaucratic opacity), viewers are treated to 150 minutes of rough and riveting scheming, backstabbing, and anti-heroes. The film rightly draws on American film noir tropes and style, particularly useful is the chiaroscuro or low-key/high contrast lighting. Furtive figures duck in and out of darkness, occasionally blinded by a flood of light.
The film is actually one of Kurosawa’s more underrated efforts, especially with regards to its cinematography. For example, near the end of the film, the action shifts to a bombed out munitions factory (reminding viewers that though the country is currently prosperous and the War ended 15 years ago, there are still ghosts that haunt Japan) which provides Kurosawa and cinematographer Aizawa Yuzuru a detritus-strewn canvas begging to be composed.
The scenes with the strongest mise-en-scene are at the end of the film, with characters divided by rubble, some drenched in light, others cloaked in darkness. The blocking and use of all planes of action speak to Kurosawa and Aizawa’s mastery of composition.
Speaking of the end of the film, The Bad Sleep Well is one of the most brutal and cynical films this reviewer has seen. Corruption is identified as a clear problem throughout the film, yet multiple characters speak to almost Cthulu-like characteristics of the bureaucracy whereby one man (or even multiple people) have no hope of stopping what has become institutional practice (e.g. the duty of underlings to protect their superiors, even at the cost of their own lives). Incidentally, they characters are proven correct time and again, with the denouement of the film serving as a particularly trenchant observation of the banality of evil.
This review has purposely avoided describing the story so as not to ruin aspects of Kurosawa’s cynical thriller. While The Bad Sleep Well may lack the sex appeal of samurai epics like Rashômon (1950), it is actually one of Kurosawa’s better efforts. It cannot be overstated how unsatisfied viewers will feel after watching the film, so do not go in expecting a happy ending where justice is served. But then again, justice prevailing in contemporary life is a rare occurrence. I do hope you’ll consider my future upon my return.