#7 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.
By the end of this film, I could have sworn that The Bad Sleep Well was made by Masaki Kobayashi not Akira Kurosawa. The film ends up too cynical about contemporary Japanese corporate culture without the balance of tender humanity that I know Kurosawa for. It’s also pure noir with a jazzy and almost threatening score by Masaru Sato, a certain nihilism, and a constant sense of unease. All it’s really missing is a femme fatale and voiceover.
A very loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the film essentially begins with the play within the play, transposed to the wedding between Koichi Nishi (Toshiro Mifune) and Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa), the daughter of a vice-president in the Public Corporation, Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori). The scene, reminding me of big, ceremony-based opening sequences like The Godfather or Fanny and Alexander, is beset by controversy when Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara), Iwabuchi’s assistant, is arrested by the police, but things proceed awkwardly. The whole affair is witnessed by a gaggle of reporters who discuss amongst themselves, also providing the audience with a heft of background, who is there and what led to it all. There are two connected cases of corruption at the heart of the film, one that happened five years prior that led to the suicide of an emerging executive named Furuya and another going on now about a bribery scandal involving Public Corp and Dairyu Construction involving a rigged bidding process. This opening scene balances fairly well between a very large information dump regarding at least half a dozen characters as well as this background of corruption. And then the wedding cake comes in, a large reconstruction of the building that Furuya threw himself from the seventh story with a rose sticking out of the window. The reactions of three executives, including Iwabuchi, tells the audience that they know exactly what it means even if, at this point, we’re not quite sure.
There are a lot of differences between The Bad Sleep Well and Hamlet, but this is one of the more interesting. In Shakespeare’s original play, we get soliloquies setting the stage early, as was the Bard’s wont. Kurosawa, working from a screenplay that was derived from ideas from his nephew, starts at the play within the play and keeps our Hamlet character, Nishi, largely hidden for the first forty-five minutes or so. The focus is entirely on Iwabuchi, Moriyama (Takashi Shimura), and Shirai (Ko Nishimura) as they manipulate their underlings, including Wada, to take the fall for the errant accounting and protect their superiors. Nishi only really gains prominence when Wada, climbing up the side of a volcano, is about to kill himself when Nishi shows up and demands that Wada share his sense of vengeance against the powerful men using him to protect themselves.
So begins Nishi’s direct efforts to punish Iwabuchi, Moriyama, and Shirai. Nishi, having become Iwabuchi’s secretary through his relationship with Yoshiko, has been plotting for five years to avenge the death of Furuya, his father. Nishi’s relationship has been hidden two-fold by the fact that he was Furuya’s illegitimate son (Furuya having been convinced to take a politically convenient marriage instead of marrying Nishi’s mother) and that Nishi has switched identities with his friend from the war, Itakura (Takeshi Kato). He first attacks Shirai by using Wada as a ghostly presence to torture him psychologically, steadily driving him insane by stealing and replacing five million yen, ill-begotten gains from the bid process that only he and Wada knew how to get to. This culminates in a scene where, after Iwabuchi has decided that Shirai is too much of a liability and organized a hit on him, Nishi saves the villain just to take him up to the room that Furuya threw himself from and break him.
The focus then turns to Moriyama who, though intelligent deduction, figures out that these events couldn’t be random or the action of someone left out of the no bid scheme. It has to be someone tied to Furuya, so he goes back to the well to figure out if Furuya had any relatives they didn’t find on their initial investigation of him, and he discovers, through Furuya’s widow, that he had had a first love and a son, Nishi. She also has a picture from Furuya’s funeral that shows Nishi anguishing over the death of his father, and Nishi’s plans fall apart.
They fall apart because Yoshika’s brother, Tatsuo (Tatsuya Mihashi), overhears the news from Moriyama and, being extremely protective of his lame sister that he’s responsible for her useless leg, acts in a passion and tries to shoot Nishi. The action shifts to a bombed out munitions plant where Nishi holds a captured Moriyama and figures out the final hard pieces of evidence against Iwabuchi. He’s sacrificed much. He’s going to end up in prison. And yet, he’s going to get the men who killed his father and defrauded the Japanese taxpayer of three billion yen. This would be where a typical Kurosawa film would find some level of victory, but then it goes into full Kobayashi territory and the good guys lose. They don’t just kind of lose, they completely and totally lose, and that loss is crushing.
We’ve gone along with Nishi as he’s done his best to be a good man while trying to take down evil men, we’ve invested in his success, and to see it completely collapse is terrible. At least Hamlet was able to stab Claudius as he died. Nishi doesn’t get that chance. After all the complex machinations, he was able to wound the monster bureaucracy that had harmed him by driving Shirai insane, but that’s about it. The money’s still stolen. The men who did it are still free.
I love that ending. It’s such a marked departure for Kurosawa. The Bad Sleep Well would make a rather uncomfortable double feature with Ikiru, with the latter showing a way to succeed even slightly in the contemporary world of bureaucratic Japan while the former shows that bureaucracy completely crushing the individual.