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TCM Imports - December 2018
Remind Me
,The Bad Sleep Well

The Bad Sleep Well

Akira Kurosawa directed The Bad Sleep Well, a modern-day crime drama starring Toshiro Mifune, in 1960. By then he had already made some of his most celebrated films, including the samurai pictures Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), and Throne of Blood (1957). His movies of the 1940s and 1950s all relied on outside financing, however, and as the debut project of his own company, Kurosawa Productions, The Bad Sleep Well marked a new phase in his career. "From this film on, I was responsible for everything," he recalled later. "Consequently, when I began, I wondered what kind of film to make. A film made only to make money did not appeal to me – one should not take advantage of an audience. Instead, I wanted to make a movie of some social significance."

Kurosawa had done this before. Rashomon, the film that made him internationally famous, is a philosophical tale about the reliability of law and the relativity of truth; I Live in Fear (1955) deals with cold-war dread of nuclear catastrophe; The Lower Depths (1957) explores the exploitation and abuse of slum dwellers. Looking for a similarly important subject to launch his production unit, he decided to do "something about corruption." The reason for this choice, he told Japanese film authority Donald Richie, was that "it has always seemed to me that graft, bribery, etc., at the public level, is one of the worst crimes that there is." His target was evildoers who "hide behind the façade of some great company or corporation" to prevent others from knowing "how dreadful they really are, what awful things they do."

The Bad Sleep Well starts with a wedding, depicted with a richness of detail that may remind today's viewers of The Godfather (1972), which also opens with marriage festivities where a criminal undercurrent runs below the surface of the occasion. The couple being wed are Keiko, the daughter of a government housing-corporation president named Iwabuchi, and Nishi, the president's secretary. Many guests have arrived to eat, drink, and toast the bride and groom, and a number of journalists are looking on from the sidelines, looking for a dramatic event to write about for their papers. Drama starts building when Keiko's brother suggests in a speech that Nishi may be using her to climb higher in the company's power structure. Things get even edgier when the wedding cake arrives, made in the form of a building where a vice president committed suicide during a bribery investigation five years earlier – and the cake has a flag hanging from the very window he jumped from. Then the police barge in, disrupting the celebration by arresting Wada, an executive of the firm, for embezzlement. The journalists have plenty to write about now.

Uproar deepens into mystery when Wada runs off to kill himself but then reappears as a ghostly presence seen by Shirai, an employee who was involved in the scandal five years before. Bringing these threads together, it turns out that the newly married Nishi isn't Nishi after all. He's actually Furuya, the son of the executive who jumped from the building in the bribery case, and he has taken on a false identity to get revenge on Iwabuchi for driving his real father to suicide. He married Keiko so he could destroy the president from within his own family, and he prevented Wada's suicide so he could use the terrified man as a tool. In the film's last portion, "Nishi" kidnaps, confines, and tortures another company officer by starvation, demanding the location of tainted money and records that he can use to bring Iwabuchi and the corporation down. But he has come to love Keiko by this time, and she – loving him and also her endangered father – starts a series of events that lead to a violent finale.

This may sound complicated, but at two and a half hours, Kurosawa has time to make things clear, and while he baffles us occasionally, it's usually as a way of building audience curiosity and suspense. In any case, the movie's messages are impossible to miss. The corporate world is portrayed as a many-layered morass of scandal, deceit, larceny, manipulation, murder, and revenge. Almost all the important characters are up to their eyeballs in the muck, serving as perpetrators, victims, and sometimes both in succession. Kurosawa is best known for his tales of samurai adventure in medieval Japan, and this twentieth-century melodrama can be interpreted as a warning that reactionary feudalism lingers on in Japan's unbending system of intermingled corporate and political structures. As critic Bosley Crowther wrote in his favorable New York Times review, Kurosawa's "bitter and cynical recounting of the failure of a right-thinking young expose and thus get revenge on a group of old corporation robbers might almost be taken as a reflection of modern cynicism toward the old war lords in Japan." Seen this way, the pseudonymous Nishi becomes a latter-day version of the medieval swordsman, determined to avenge his family's honor but thwarted by his own capacity for love. The movie's style heightens the mood, with slightly overwrought performances – not surprisingly, the best comes from Mifune as the false Nishi – straining against the visual starkness of office walls, bombed-out landscapes, and dark, menacing streets. The music by Masaru Sato is less effective, lapsing into counterproductive cuteness at inappropriate moments.

Many moviegoers find The Bad Sleep Well a lesser achievement than Kurosawa's 1963 thriller High and Low, which also involves kidnapping, greed, and corporate power. Not everyone agrees with this assessment, but Kurosawa himself wasn't quite satisfied with The Bad Sleep Well, feeling that the movie as a whole doesn't live up to the high quality of its early portions. Even when it was in production, he admitted, "I knew that it wasn't working out as I had planned and that this was because I was simply not telling and showing enough." In the final scene, for instance, we see Iwabuchi on the phone, and we're meant to infer that this is one of many calls he has made to some high government official even more corrupt than he is. The indirect way this is presented, Kurosawa realized later, is "not explicit enough...but in Japan if you go any further than that you are bound to run into serious trouble." He added that perhaps "the picture would have been better if I had been braver....Maybe I could have in a big country like America. Japan, however, cannot be this free and this makes me sad." The self-imposed limitations of Japanese cinema in the post-World War II era is another intriguing subject to think about when watching this flawed but steadily interesting drama.

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Producers: Tomoyuki Tanaka, Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Hideo Oguni, Eijiro Hisaita, Akira Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima, Shinobu Hashimoto
Cinematographer: Yuzuru Aizawa
Art Direction: Yoshiro Muraki
Music: Masaru Sato
With: Toshiro Mifune (Nishi), Masayuki Mori (Iwabuchi), Kyoko Kagawa (Yoshiko Nishi), Tatsuya Mihashi (Tatsuo), Takashi Shimura (Moriyama), Ko Nishimura (Shirai), Takeshi Kato (Itakura), Kamatari Fujiwara (Wada), Chishu Ryu (Nonaka), Seiji Miyaguchi (Okakura), Koji Mitsui (reporter), Ken Mitsuda (Arimura), Nobuo Nakamura (legal adviser), Susumu Fujita (detective), Koji Nanbara (Horiuchi), Gen Shimizu (Miura), Yoshifumi Tajima (reporter), Sensho Matsumoto (Hatano), Yoshio Tsuchiya (secretary), Kyu Sazanka (Kaneko), Kin Sugai (Wada), Natsuko Kahara (Mrs. Furuya), Nobuko Tashiro (Mrs. Moriyama), Atsuko Ichinomiya (Mrs. Ariyama), Toshiko Higuchi (Wada's daughter), Jun Kondo (reporter), Yutaka Sada (wedding receptionist), Ikio Sawamura (Taxi driver), Hisashi Yokomori (reporter), Kunie Tanaka (hitman), Kyoro Sakurai (prosecutor), Ryoji Shimizu (worker), Soji Ubukata (employee), Shiro Tsuchiya (employee), Kyoko Ozawa (maid), Akemi Ueno (receptionist), Hiromi Mineoka (maid).
BW-151m. Letterboxed.

by David Sterritt



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