DVD Review Of The Bad Sleep Well
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/3/07
Akira Kurosawa’s 1960 black and white film, The Bad Sleep Well (Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru), is often compared to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but it’s an inapt comparison for, while Shakespeare’s play has a higher sense of poetry, Kurosawa’s film has far more relevance, realism, and complexity, even if, like Hamlet, it’s a high class melodrama. The film was written by Kurosawa and four collaborators- Shinobu Hashimoto, Eijirô Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni. Because it has Shakespearean pedigree, and is not set in medieval Japan, this film has not gotten its proper due, in comparison with the classics that Kurosawa made earlier in his career, such as Rashomon, Ikiru, and Seven Samurai. But, it should, for, despite its melodramatic bent, and film noir roots- heightened by Masaru Sato’s wonderful soundtrack, which alternates the darkness of certain moments with almost carnivalesque music, the film is superbly paced and well written, for within the film’s opening sequences at a corporate wedding, fully Westernized with a Here Comes The Bride rendition, covered by the jackal-like press- reminiscent of the paparazzi in the prior year’s Federico Fellini masterpiece La Dolce Vita, ready to pounce on any irregularity, because of a budding scandal, and the subsequent brilliant montage of newspaper headlines that puts those used by Hollywood in pre-World War Two gangster films to shame, the bulk of the film’s narrative setup is displayed, and allowed to unravel for the next two hours, albeit almost never following the standard melodramatic arc of allowing the characters’ dumbest possible actions dictate the plot. Because of this, the film’s ending is both realistic, and one of the most chilling in film history. Perhaps only Dr. Strangelove’s scenes of Armageddon are more chilling, however leavened by that film’s final scenes’ editing.
After a lengthy twenty-plus minute setup in the wedding scenes, the plot thins out and becomes clear for the rest of the 150 minute film. The corporate executive, Koichi Nishi (a bespectacled Toshirô Mifune), who married the crippled daughter, Yoshiko (Kyôko Kagawa), of the VP of the Public Corporation- under scrutiny in a kickback scheme involving a contracted company called Dairyu Construction, is not who he claims to be. The reporters naturally believe the marriage is a fraud, because the bride is crippled, and Nishi seems to be a nepotistic corporate climber. The reporters gibe each other, like a Greek chorus commenting on the action, until the executives look panicked when the wedding cake arrives, shaped like their corporate office building, with a red X marking a seventh story window where a past executive committed suicide. Nishi turns out to really be the bastard son of that corporate executive, Furuya, who was forced to commit suicide, after a prior scandal, by jumping out that seventh story window five years earlier. Slowly, methodically, Nishi has planned his vengeance against the corporate leaders- starting with having the cake delivered to his own wedding. The Vice President, named Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori) 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, although not nearly as much the craven and perpetually confused and dour Contract Officer Shirai (Kô Nishimura), who is driven crazy by Nishi with visions of another corporate officer who seemingly suicided, the head accountant Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara).
But, things are not all as they seem. Wada did not kill himself by tossing himself into a volcano, as believed, unlike another executive, Miura, who jumped in front of a speeding truck. Wada was saved by Nishi, and recruited into his revenge plot when taken to his funeral, where the gay music contrasts with the chilling words of the executives that Nishi surreptitiously taped, celebrating Wada’s suicide. Both the wedding and funeral scenes are perfect sequences that display human and Japanese social behavior at their formal worst, and serve as complementary, if contrasting, set pieces. Also not what it seems, Nishi is not Nishi. He is really Furuya’s son, Itakura. The real Nishi, now Itakura (Takeshi Katô), is his friend, who switched identities with him after Furuya’s funeral, and is his partner in vengeance. Then, to complicate things further is Iwabuchi’s son Tatsuo (Tatsuya Mihashi), who feels guilt over causing his sister’s crippling accident, loathes his father although he loves the playboy lifestyle it affords him, and swears to kill Nishi at the wedding celebration if he makes his sister unhappy. He and his sister are, in a sense, the clueless wildcards in this tug of war between murderous corporate criminals and zealous vigilantes.
The film does a wonderful job of showing the utter corruption that is
inevitable with the eternal corporate mindset that slacks off public
responsibility for mere profit, and the particularly Japanese obsession with
falling on the sword, so to speak, for one’s superiors. 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.’ But,
ultimately, it is the long kowed Wada who is correct. The saddest thing is the
corruption this film details is so minor league today that it seems almost
childish 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 would belong
to the corporation’s little seen President, Arimura (Ken Mitsuda), who, late
in the film, when things seem to be going against the corporation, even sends
over a vial of poison for Iwabuchi to do himself in, in case things don’t go
well. Ever the corporate toady, Iwabuchi nor only thanks his superior for the
vial, but for even telling him the correct dosage needed for death. Watching
this film, far more than any of the period pieces put out, explains exactly how
the militarists that arose in the early Twentieth Century were so easily able to
lead their country down the path to near oblivion.
Detailing the minutia of plot in this complex film is pretty much pointless, and would make the film seem tedious- which it’s not, for the ride the actual film gives is well worth it. The film is rife with wonderful moments and performances. Mine is the scene where, after kidnapping Moriyama when he discovers Nishi’s true identity, and locking him in the underground ruins of a munitions plant, still not rebuilt fifteen years after World War Two, both Nishi and Itakura, go topside to reminisce of the pre-War days. There is genuine emotion shown between the two men that is unforced, and the whole mise-en-scène reminds of the end of The Third Man. Yet, both vigilantes are, in many ways, as weak and corrupted as every other character in the tale. There really are not any likable characters in the whole tale. In a sense, this film- in that regard, reminds me of the superb 1997 crime thriller, L.A. Confidential, save that it’s even bleaker in tone and outlook.
By film’s end, Iwabuchi drugs his daughter, who tells her father where Nishi’s hideout is, after Tatsuo tries to kill her when he overhears that marrying her was merely part of Nishi’s revenge plot. Pretending that the still enraged Tatsuo will kill Nishi, whom Yoshiko loves and has reconciled with, after accepting her father as evil, Iwabuchi gets his information, and sends his henchmen to kill Nishi, Wada, and Moriyama, to cover everything up. The film ends with Itakura bemoaning the death of his friend, who was shot up with alcohol, and put in a car that was run over by a train. Now, he can never reclaim his real identity, and all the proof that they had of the corporate deceit is gone. He blames Yoshiko, who faints, as Tatsuo protects her. Iwabuchi holds a press conference, pretends to mourn his son-in-law’s death, and then returns to his office. He is confronted by his two children, who disown him. He wants to win them back, but, as they leave, he gets a call from Arimura. He offers to resign, but is told to go on an overseas trip. This vote of confidence from his superior seems more than enough to bolster his ego, and, as he grovels in thanks for the President’s consideration, all thoughts of his children and myriad crimes seem to dissipate. The word chilling is not enough to describe the ending.
The cinematography, by longtime Godzilla series mainstay Yuzuru Aizawa, is superb. The scenes where Nishi and Wada drive Shirai mad are masterful example of pure black and white cinematography that rivals the best of the masterful Carl Theodor Dreyer. And while all the acting is first rate by the supporting cast, with the usual stellar work of Takashi Shimura as Moriyama, the perfectly restrained evil of Masayuki Mori as Iwabuchi, not to mention the wonderfully over the top looniness of Kô Nishimura as Shirai, the stellar cravenness of Kamatari Fujiwara as Wada, the semi-incestuous off kilter performance of Tatsuya Mihashi as Tatsuo, and the hammy enigmatic performance of Takeshi Katô as Itakura (the real Nishi), this film belongs to Toshirô Mifune as Nishi (the real Itakura), for, unlike his wildly over the top-however terrific, work in Rashomon and Seven Samurai, he truly gets to display the full range of his acting chops in his boiling rages- he declares, when trying to toss Shirai out the same window his father fell from, ‘Even now they sleep soundly, with grins on their faces. I won’t stand for it! I can never hate them enough!’, his hiding of them as a corporate secretary, his acts of kindness that ultimately do him in, and in his love tenderly restrained scenes with Yoshiko, especially one where he tells of how his obsession with his father after his death is only matched by the hatred he felt for the man before his death. His internalized anguish allows Mifune to act with small gestures, not grand ones, and scenery chewing gives way to real emoting. Of the three roles I’ve seen him in, this is his best….easily. It takes a good half hour of the film’s unfolding, though, before Nishi even emerges as the film’s central character, and puppetmaster- although, ultimately, he is no match for Iwabuchi, who’s been doing it longer and better. That’s how much confidence Kurosawa has in his filmic and narrative talents, for imagine a Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts film going a half hour into the plot without a major scene for them. Mifune was that big a star in his day, but the film is always bigger.
The DVD, by The Criterion Collection, is shown in a 2.35:1 widescreen ratio, but lacks an English soundtrack, Considering the tremendous amount of white in the film, especially in the wedding scenes, the white subtitles are very difficult to read. There’s also a trailer, and a thirty-three minute episode of the Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful To Create documentary series on the making of this film. The 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 film and the latter a strained attempt at, yet again, linking the film to Hamlet.
Despite such senseless flagellations, The Bad Sleep Well is an excellent film, and every bit as worthy of being talked about as a masterpiece, as are Ikiru and Seven Samurai. It is, if only because of the weak end of Rashomon, even better than that universally acknowledged classic, and far better than almost all the American film noirs that I’ve seen, despite its melodrama. If Shakespeare teaches one thing it’s that the difference between true drama and melodrama is often only the excellence of its presentation. On that score, this film is a great drama, even if, ultimately and in the real world, the bad really do sleep well.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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