Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is best known for his samurai epics. Now I’ve only actually seen two of those: Yojimbo and Rashomon. Sometimes people are prone to forget that Kurosawa’s output ranges in genre and style. He was more than just the samurai film’s ambassador. Of his outliers, the best known and regarded is High and Low. The 1963 film sort of sees Kurosawa riffing on M. Which is not to say the two films follow the same storylines, ideas, or themes, there’s just a similar approach to the vaguely comparable subject matter. Akira Kurosawa doesn’t tackle the same simplistic thematics broached in Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, instead Kurosawa uses his film to tackle issues of class. He casts Toshirô Mifune as an honourable and wealthy businessman thrown into a moral conundrum by a botched kidnapping. High and Low deserves its reputation, but its subject matter, star, and release date combine to over shadow another lesser known Akira Kurosawa film – The Bad Sleep Well. The Bad Sleep Well came out in 1960 and stars Toshirô Mifune as an ideals-driven businessman’s assistant and son-in-law. The overlaps retroactively dimmed The Bad Sleep Well’s reputation. (The film’s slightly bathetic ending probably doesn’t help with the film’s continued reputation.) Of course Criterion still offers a lovely DVD copy of the film, which I sat down to watch recently.
First things first, for those as dumb as me, “well” the adjective not the noun. Took me half way through the film I’ve owned for months to realize that. Yes, I am ashamed, lets move on.
Other than High and Low, Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well also shares similarities with a better known film in the director’s filmography. 1957’s Throne of Blood, also starring Mifune, shares a key similarity with The Bad Sleep Well. Both see Akira Kurosawa loosely adapting Shakespeare. Throne of Blood famously tackles the Bard’s Macbeth, reimagining it as a samurai epic. The Bad Sleep Well instead subsumes key parts of Hamlet, using the play as inspiration and reference without ever coming close to strict adaptation. Like High and Low Kurosawa points his investigatory themes at the businessmen of Japan. While High and Low, as the title suggests, directly contrasts the lives of the upper class with the lower, The Bad Sleep Well instead aggressively addresses issues of engrained corporate corruption. The plot deals with illegal kickbacks, bribery, and the murderous cover-ups of these same misdemeanours.
The first twenty minutes or so of The Bad Sleep Well take place during the same intricately choreographed wedding scene. A scene that took two weeks to film. The wedding sees the daughter of a powerful construction company’s CEO marrying Toshirô Mifune, who is silent through this opening twenty minutes. During the wedding, arrests are made, reporters gossip and slander, and an elaborate reminder of a company tragedy is staged. This is all designed to resemble the play within a play in Hamlet, but recast as an opening, and a wedding. This all sets the stage for the rest of the film. The lies and whispers and hidden machinations, the past suicide, and the silently brooding Mifune.
What follows is a wonderful example of a shakai-mono film. This Japanese genre basically translates to “social-problem.” It’s also an example of the leftist political films known as keiko eiga films, a term that translates to “tendency films.” Tendency films were outlawed by the Japanese government during the war. The shakai-mono films became a way to address political and societal issues in the post-occupation Japanese landscape. Many of these films are still fondly remembered, for instance the films of Masaki Kobayashi (I have these and will get there at some point). What sets The Bad Sleep Well apart from other shakai-mono films is the deft incorporation of American noir tropes that Akira Kurosawa attempts. Toshirô Mifune’s character is a clearly limned examination of lone-gunman and vengeful hero tropes.
The unique situation Akira Kurosawa was in when directing this movie makes it an interesting and important point in the director’s career regardless of the subject matter. For the first time in his career Akira Kurosawa was freed from studio oversight. Or at least more freed. The Bad Sleep Well was the first film Kurosawa funded with his own production company, the Kurosawa Production Company. That being said it’s worth pointing out that the split from Toho was amicable. In fact the studio was Toho’s idea, and the company was the chief shareholder. So while it hardly seems like the evisceration of Japanese corporate culture was born of any particular frustration with the studio system, the fact that Kurosawa was risking his own money allowed him to attempt his most limpid political film yet.
The plot of the film is completely driven by these thematic concerns. It takes a while to clearly explain itself, especially given how long Mifune’s character is backgrounded, but when it does the critique of corporate corruption is at its plainest. In the wedding scene we learn a past company employee committed suicide. The suicide was slightly mysterious, and some consider the act was probably designed to cover up misdeeds. When the wedding cake is to be cut, an unanticipated wedding cake arrives. It’s made to look like the building that the employee leapt from and there’s a rose stuck in the cake, marking the window the suicidal man jumped from. This causes a wave of guilty reactions from a few key heads of the company. Later we discover the significance of the cake and the reason it appears at the wedding. Toshirô Mifune ordered it for his own wedding. The man who was forced to kill himself was Mifune’s father. He’s switched identities with another man to cover this up, and he’s marrying the crippled daughter of the company’s head with the sole intention of exposing the crimes being committed by this company.
The crimes themselves are simple. Two companies are meeting behind closed doors. One has been told to bid an excessive amount on a contract the other is offering. The difference between the needed amount of cash and the offered amount will be divided up amongst the scheming parties. Clearly they’ve committed other similar crimes in the past. What makes this different is how quickly things start going south. The police are clearly wise to their machinations. Hence the arrest they make at the beginning of the opening wedding scene. After an interrogation session the police decide to release and re-arrest their suspect in the hope of convincing him to cooperate. As the police go to arrest their suspect a second time, the company lawyer whispers in the man’s ear. He then runs from the police and throws himself in front of a speeding truck.
The next man on the police list ends up climbing an active volcano, planning to commit suicide. When he reaches the top, an impassioned Toshirô Mifune stops him. Mifune talks the frightened man down from the proverbial ledge, recruiting him to the cause. They stage his suicide, allowing for a scene where Mifune takes this once-loyal employee to his own funeral and exposes the cruel truths hidden by the company’s higher ups. With a supposedly dead man on Mifune’s side, it allows him to cast the dead man in the role of ghostly revenant. This haunting figure, and his secret knowledge of the company, is used as a pawn in the war against Mifune’s intransigently evil father-in-law.
They rob a safe full of money from the company, then Mifune uses his job as an assistant to his father-in-law as an opportunity to plant the money on a member of the company’s inner circle just as he’s most likely to be suspected. These plans of division and psychological warfare start to stumble as Toshirô Mifune begins to actually fall for his wife. Not only that but Mifune’s brother-in-law, who feels responsible for his sister’s injuries, is keeping a keen eye on Mifune. There’s no love between Mifune’s brother-in-law and father-in-law, however the former won’t see his sister hurt, and mistrusts Mifune’s intentions.
The film’s style is typical Kurosawa. Lots of wonderful compositions reminiscent of renaissance paintings. (Kurosawa actually has a painting background and apparently paints storyboards for many of his films.) The way Kurosawa likes to arrange characters within a frame is instantly recognizable.
Toshirô Mifune is absolutely stunning, as always, in the film. He perfectly captures the driving cathexis of the main character. The ultimately doomed and tragic figure whose kismet leads him towards his off-screen demise. In one of the more memorable moments of the film Mifune, ever boiling over with a barely contained rage, says, “It’s not easy hating evil.”
Ultimately it seems Mifune doesn’t hate them enough. His love is his ultimate undoing, as his wife accidentally causes his fairly brutal death, concluding Akira Kurosawa’s insightful critique of corporate corruption on a terribly pessimistic note.