The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

D: Akira Kurosawa
S: Toshiro Mifune, Takeshi Kato

The Bad Sleep Well is a searing inditement of Japanese corporate hierarchies which cannily links the contemporary economic and political culture with elements of the story of Hamlet, raising questions of the legacy of feudalism which are not entirely an aesthetic indulgence on the part of its director, Akira Kurosawa. Following his hugely entertaining period epic The Hidden Fortress with a modern-day crime drama is a bold move, and one which pays off nicely. It is occasionally reminiscent of recent American gangster films where the old time machine-gun toting heavies have been replaced by a world of embezzlers and back-door deals with political powers, but draws from a variety of sources.

As the film opens, a corporate society wedding is interrupted by a brewing financial scandal, and several guests are stunned by the appearance of a special gift cake which reminds them of a recent suicide which brought them all to power. It soon emerges that a malevolent force from the past seems to be at work against the equally sinister forces active in the present, and a battle begins which involves suicide, kidnapping, switched identities which pricks the consciences of the characters by forcing them to deal with the consequences of their past actions. It is soon revealed to be Toshiro Mifune, initially the inoffensive groom, but shown to be a motivated and vengeful character with a dark past of his own. It all leads to a series of confrontations which reveal the hidden underside of modern business culture and question its consequences for both people as individuals and society on the whole.

Beautifully photographed in ravishing black and white widescreen, the film flows between the clinical corporate world of offices and meetings to the darkened suburban streets where ersatz ghosts and would-be-killers lurk in shadows, only to disappear in car headlights moments later. Kurosawa handles the shifts in tone deftly, and makes terrific use of a variety of scenery to incorporate a broad range of domestic and political issues. Beneath the veneer of duty, ritual and obediance to authority is a wealth of personal trauma. Like the play-within-the-play scene in Hamlet, the film concentrates on bringing them out by the use of convention, as Mifune manipulates the executives around him armed with his knowledge of corporate procedure while quietly serving undetected as a secretary.

It also addresses questions about the nature of its hero, and is not shy about exploring the cruel streak which drives him. Only his affection for his crippled bride seems to offer spiritual redemption from his quest from revenge. This too becomes frustrated as his playboy brother in law misinterprets his attitude and his evil father in law comes closer to learning the truth about his identity. It ends on a bleak and realistically cynical note, though moments approaching the climax tend towards the melodramatic. The trajectory of character drama is relatively predictable, but this tends to reflect its Shakespearian influence rather than exhibit a weakness in the writing. Events lead inevitably to trajedy rather than manipulate the audience's emotions with contrivance and exaggeration.

Fans of Kurosawa's previous work should enjoy the film, though it lacks the majesty and scale which has come to define him in international eyes in works like Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood. It is not an intimate film, nor is it as radical in form and style as the likes of Rashomon, but it is chillingly on-target in its attack upon the state of Japanese culture in the middle twentieth century using identifiable modern settings and situations without the buffer of history. It is a powerful and affecting parable for the present with a strong underlying structure which comes from the director's familiarity with theatrical tradition. Well worth a look.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.