The Bad Sleep Well is not one of Akira Kurosawa’s more appreciated films. For an investigation of corporate corruption, a lot of moviegoers prefer his 1963 film High and Low. The film doesn’t really fit with Kurosawa’s Shakespearean adaptations because it only contains plot points from Hamlet, not the plot. Even Kurosawa seemed to have reservations about The Bad Sleep Well, saying it was “made too soon.”
I think there is a lot to admire about The Bad Sleep Well, especially in the first and second acts. Kurosawa had definite ideas about corporate evil and how it should be portrayed, and I feel that the execution of his ideas weakened the third act.
The Bad Sleep Well opens with news reporters at a posh wedding reception for Yoshiko Iwabuchi (Kyoko Kagawa). Her father, Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori), is Vice President of the Unexploited Land Corporation.
Yoshiko’s new husband is Koichi Nishi (Toshiro Mifune, low-key and even wearing glasses). He’s secretary to the Corporation’s President.
It’s obvious that Yoshiko is the one with social standing. She’s wearing a formal robe with an elaborate headdress. At the same time, she is vulnerable because she is physically crippled.
This sequence has been compared to a similar wedding scene in The Godfather (1972), although its outcome is slightly different. All through the reception, reporters have gossiped about possible corruption by employees of the Corporation.
When the wedding cake comes, it is in the shape of corporate headquarters. A rose protrudes from the office where Furuya, a former Corporation employee, committed suicide. Many people believe Furuya, implicated in a scandal, killed himself to keep from testifying against his superiors.
Police interrupt the wedding to arrest corporate assistant officer Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara) on charges of bribery, and they question him about a kickback scheme. After Wada is released, Nishi must prevent him from committing suicide.
His motives are not kind. Nishi wants to use Wada and also contract officer Shirai (Ko Nishimura) to exact revenge on the Corporation. He reveals to Wada and Shirai that Furuya was his father. According to Nishi, he only married Yoshiko to get close to the family.
Meanwhile, Wada slips back to Iwabuchi’s house and brings Yoshiko to visit Nishi at the hideout. The two discuss all that has happened. Yoshiko doesn’t want her father hurt, but understands the truth must come out. Both realize they care for one another.
When Yoshiko returns home, her father greets her with concern. “Your brother has left home with his shotgun to kill Nishi. Tell me where they are so I can stop your brother from committing murder.”
Taken in, Yoshiko tells her father everything. He drugs her so that she’ll sleep and then departs.
The brother returns-he’d gone duck hunting. Worried, Yoshiko and her brother rush to the hideout. They find Nishi’s friend, who tells them Nishi and Wada have already been killed and the evidence destroyed.
Yoshiko and her brother confront their father, denouncing him. Iwabuchi calls his superiors and apologizes for the uproar of late. He assures them everything is under control and announces his retirement from the Corporation.
The Bad Sleep Well was the first film produced by Kurosawa’s independent production company. It’s intended as an assessment of corporate corruption in Japan, especially the notion that a lower-level employee should commit suicide rather than testify against a superior.
The one major quibble I have with the film is its manner of conveying action in the third act. As a screenwriter, I try to look for ways to increase action. Any time you have a character speaking for long periods of time, the action comes to a screeching halt.
In this case, the actor does more than deliver a long speech. He delivers a long speech describing the torture and death of his best friend Nishi. While I watched that scene, I kept thinking, “Why do it this way? Why not show the scene?”
Kurosawa mentions this film in a feature on the DVD. He said that he didn’t want to show the face of evil, opting to imply it instead. He even tells how they took a new Studebaker and wrecked it for the scene (as opposed to showing someone driving and having the wreck). I respect his judgment, but honestly disagree with it.
Otherwise, I have great admiration for this film. That incredible wedding sequence, Kurosawa’s pan focus photography, the corporate but intense Mifune- and all punctuated by Hamlet story points. This film deserves to be better known.
Theme: Borrowed Bard
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