The Bad Sleep Well (Dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1960)
Of all the actor-director collaborations throughout the history of modern film, my favorite would most certainly be the combined work of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, who made 16 films together, ranging from 1948 to 1965. Something about Mifune’s quiet intensity, and the way Kurosawa works his camera always seemed to mesh together so well, and I can never shake the feeling that something is missing when I watch a Kurosawa flick devoid of an appearance from Mifune. Luckily, The Bad Sleep Well is a movie driven by Mifune’s performance, and is one of the highlights (for me anyway) of the pair’s long, productive mutual careers. For the average movie-goer, this film will most likely be a love-or-hate-it affair: a subtitled movie from 1960 that’s in black and white is never an easy sell, but I promise you it’s worth the ‘risk’.
The film begins with a lengthy wedding scene, which borrows it’s basic play-within-a-play structure from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It serves as more than a nod to the late Bard, however, for the 20-minutes spent on the ceremony help acclimate the viewer to the characters and puts the plot into motion. A group of journalists waiting outside the banquet serve as a quasi-Greek Choir, who both spell out the themes that will be touched upon later, and act as a surrogate for the audience. As the wedding comes to an end, one of the newspaper-men comments to another that it was “a helluva one act play”, but it is quickly pointed out that the ceremony is merely the prologue to a bigger story.
The wedding is indeed a prologue to a much larger, sinister story. Sprinkled throughout the ceremony are members of two of the most corrupt companies in all of Japan, and we are quickly clued in that there is a mole amongst them, looking to bring them down. As much as the film serves as a re-working of the basic plot of Hamlet, it is impossible to ignore Kurosawa’s scathing view of the cut-throat business atmosphere that was prominent in post-WWII Japan. This film is very much an indictment of what he considered to be a perversion of the honorific and loyalist qualities that helped make Japan a world-power in the first place. A recurring theme throughout is subordinates of high-level business officials (quite literally) falling on their own swords to protect their bosses from having their dirty dealings revealed to the public. The message prevalent here is that, while loyalty and honor are worthwhile qualities to pursue, they are also easily taken advantage of by those who do not put much weight in them. Kurosawa attempts to give a voice to the voiceless here, by putting the corrupt tycoons in the film on trial. While the days of 1960s Japan are obviously long-gone, the overall message here is still relatable: those with power often abuse it, and without someone or something keeping them in check, they will run rampant. I have a feeling the ardent supporters of Occupy Wall Street would greatly enjoy this film.
After making clear the true evil of the villains of this picture, Kurosawa introduces our hero (played by Mifune, natch) who is attempting to take down the company from within, both by marrying the boss’ daughter, and by becoming his secretary. Mifune looks the part of your average businessman: clean-shaven, well-dressed, wears glasses and carries himself with an air of professionalism. Yet, slowly throughout his tour through the seedy underbelly of Japan’s business world, we are shown another side to his character: one who is quick to fly into a rage, who is willing to do whatever it takes to expose the men who are feasting on the less fortunate. Mifune’s face is so vividly expressive in these scenes that the viewer instantly knows exactly how he feels, even before it is revealed to us why he is so desperately pursuing these men.
Something that stood out to me throughout watching this movie was that almost every scene consisted of three people in a room together, talking, but rarely making direct eye-contact with each other (the main exception being the opening wedding scene). The way each of these scenes is framed leads the viewer to dwell on the intentions and motivations of each of the three characters in the scene. Take the following shot for example:
The character in the foreground has just realized that his two bosses (here, in the background) want him to commit suicide to insure that his knowledge of their crimes are not leaked to the press. Even without my telling you that, it is clear by the look on each of their faces exactly what position they are in. Kurosawa spaces out his actors and puts their gaze at such a level that you can have three characters interacting with each other in one shot, and still see the emotions playing out on their faces. This is even more important for foreign audiences: I don’t speak a word of Japanese, but due to the incredible cinematography, I could turn the subtitles off and mute the audio, and still obtain a basic understanding of the three characters who are on screen. That is incredibly film-making.
Lastly, Kurosawa’s use of transitions are possibly my favorite aspect of The Bad Sleep Well. If one is familiar with the Star Wars series (honestly, who isn’t?) then you are certainly familiar with the transition commonly referred to as a screen wipe (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usXca7W_jvM). Kurosawa is one of the pioneers of this transition effect, and was a direct inspiration to George Lucas. Throughout The Bad Sleep Well, Kurosawa uses this effect to clue the viewer in that while the individual scene we were seeing is coming to a close, the scene we are about to be shown is in direct relevance to the preceding events. When Kurosawa is ready to close off a continuous set of scenes, he uses a fade-to-black effect that serves as the equivalent to the end of a chapter in a novel, or the end of an episode of a television program. These little things that might not even occur to one on anything but a subconscious level, are the reason that Kurosawa is such a great story-teller. Despite presenting movie-goers with a complex story with a vast cast of characters, and complex motivations for each of those characters, Kurosawa always finds a way to present his tale in the simplest way, without simplifying it to the point of it losing it’s meaning.
In short, make an attempt to watch this movie. It may be challenging at points, and you may not have any interest in Japan or its history, but I firmly believe that this is such a powerful film that it can overcome even the most reluctant of viewers. It is far from being the most accessible of Kurosawa’s filmography, but it is right up there with the most powerful he has ever made.