Years & years ago, decades really, I was heading off to another night of the Kurosawa Film Festival & knew nothing beforehand about The Bad Sleep Well (Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru, Toho, 1960). Like most folks at the time I'd seen only his samurai films, & wasn't quite prepared for a film noir. I had rather expected a film about a well that was called "bad sleep," maybe a kaiden or ghost story.
I was probably not the only goof who made such a fool mistake, as the film acquired a couple of alternate tiles possibly to avoid the accidental pun: The Rose in the Mud, or most literally, The Worse You Are the Better You Sleep.
Was I disappointed that it was not another of Kurosawa's period tales? Heck no. By the end of that festival I was won over to the broadly held opinion that Akira Kurosawa was a genius at all sorts of films, not just samurai stuff.
With the Japanese tendency to assign every film a genre, The Bad Sleep Well is categorized a shakai-mono or social-relevance-story. It's a fine film right from the opening strains of its excellent soundtrack.
A tale of corporate corruption big-time, with Shakespeare's Hamlet for its touchstones & inspiration, we find ourselves immediately in the midst of an elaborate marriage ceremony.
Corporation man Nishi (Toshiro Mifune) is marrying the gimpy but otherwise beautiful Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa), daughter of the corporation president.
Everyone presumes the handsome Nishi is marrying the limping daughter for his own advancement in the company. Police & reporters lurk on the fringes like a Greek chorus discussing all this, as some significant white collar crime has come under public scrutiny.
Unexpectedly a wedding cake is rolled into the reception area, an enormous cake shaped like the corporate headquarters, with a flower sticking from a certain window. It's the window from which a mid-level manager of the company leapt to his death five years before, having taken the blame for ill dealings of higher-ups.
That man, Furuya, never appears in the film per se. But his figurative ghost haunts all that occurs.
Nishi the new son-in-law of the company president seems to be an honest man, & yet his own machinations get increasingly intense as the film progresses.
Yoshiko's brother Tatsuo (Tatsuya Mihashi) suspects Nishi is up to something, perhaps just a plan of self-gain, but he wants to be wrong.
If Nishi will make Yoshiko happy, Tatsuo would forgive Nishi anything. He carries a burden of guilt, having caused Yoshiko's lameness when they were children.
Although Nishi stopped underling Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara) from committing suicide for the sake of the company, everyone is allowed to believe Wada jumped into a volcano.
Nishi has forced Wada to stay in hiding. Apparently intent on bringing down the company, Nishi frames Shirai (Ko Nishimura) & tries to drive him mad or at least make him look nuts, catching glimpses of Wada from time to time, like the ghost of an innocent man haunting the guilty.
The crime Nishi knows of was a crooked bidding scheme which Japanese law takes seriously & could land some of those bigwigs in prison, their company tumbling around them.
Such dealings had years before cost Furuya his life, a faithful vassal taking the fall for his lord. Since that time, nothing had changed for the better, & conditions more recently very nearly cost Wada his life.
Shirai who encouraged Wada to take the fall has become a nervous wreck. The bigwigs can no longer trust him to keep silent, & Nishi's own father-in-law Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori) plans to have Shirai killed.
The great character actor Kunie Tanaka in an early role plays the assassin, a brief performance but nicely done. Nishi shows up in time to save Shirai's life, but it could well be premature to be happy about the rescue.
[SPOILER ALERT!] It will eventually be revealed that Nishi is the son of Furuyai. No one knew Furuyai had a son, because he was illegitimate. He now lives only to avenge his father for having been driven to suicide by evil corporate men.
Shirai was one of the three men who forced Furuyai to leap from a window. Thus Nishi invites Shirai to jump from the same window, despite having saved him from Iwabachi's assassin.
Another of the bad guys is played by one of the greatest actors who ever lived, Takashi Shimura, the head-shaved leader in Seven Samurai (1954) & the dying hero of Ikiru (1952), providing two of the finest heroic roles in two of the finest heroic films ever made by anyone ever. So it's hard for me to see Shimura as a villain, but he certainly is one here.
While undertaking an investigation to protect the company, Shimura as Muriyama finds out who Nishi is. He doesn't yet know he's been found out, but this revelation makes Nishi's plan of vengeance less certain.
His brother-in-law overhears that Nishi is an avenger & well knows his father's vicious capacity that might well merit some man's devoted hatred.
But being protective of his sister he can't overlook the misery this situation will bring Yoshiko, & so he attempts to kill Nishi, until he realizes in fact Nishi loves his wife.
Holed up in a bomb shelter among ruins near the ruins of a munition plant, with Muriyama his captive, conscience begins to get the better of Nishi, due to his love for Yoshiko.
By contrast, the wholly malevolent corporate head has no conscience, however. When good people give up, bad people prevail. And afterward, they sleep easily.
Nishi's plans are coming to fruition, but he'll leave the ultimate outcome to the police. Alas, things begin to go awry for him because even knowing his adversary is evil, he understimates how heartless & vile evil can be.
Due to Yoshiko's desire to believe in her father's ability to do good or make amends, he's able to do even more harm by manipulating his daughter's decency.
Having duped Yoshiko into betrayal for no one's sake but his own, she & her brother come to the munitions ruin the next morning to discover what their father's final mischief restulted in. They discover justice blasted into oblivion, a climax so bleak & unfair it goes well beyond cynical. [END SPOILER ALERT]
The Bad Sleep Well may seem to be slow out of the gate, but once you're pulled into the tale of intrigues, it's fascinating & original.
It was the first film Kurosawa made after as his own producer, or surely he would not have been permitted either the epic length or the heightened soapbox criticism of the Japanese business world if the Toho bigwigs had controlled the purse-strings.
Indeed part of Kurosawa's cynicism may have derived from his difficulties in being a film artist first & foremost, under the thumb of businessmen who cared less about the director's international reputation & awards than about deadlines, budgets, & receipts.
But as his own money-man responsible for cost over-runs & time delays, Kurosawa likely sang another tune when his production company failed.
A lot of the strength of The Bad Sleep Well is in the actors' faces, as the film is occasionally nearly static except for expressions & performances that convey depths of human suffering & inhumane perfidy. Absolutely nothing here could be mistaken for uplifting, except perhaps its brutalizing honesty.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl