Kurosawa had reached a point where he had been given the opportunity to form his own production company. This development carried with it enormous responsibility, particularly financial, but Kurosawa didn’t want to make a squarely commercial film right out of the gate. He wanted to make something of social significance, and Kurosawa finally settled on a film concerning public corruption, which he considered among the worst of crimes.
Kurosawa also had been shifting in his focus to the driven individual as the person who drives the film instead of a group effort such as in Seven Samurai. For The Bad Sleep Well, Kursosawa constructed his story around a revenge plot with elements clearly influenced by the most western of revenge protagonists, Hamlet.
Kurosawa’s film, like The Godfather, opens at a wedding with paparazzi, reporters, and police hanging around the fringe. The bride, Yoshiko Iwabuchi (Kyoko Kagawa), has her beauty subverted by an obviously permanent leg injury which requires a large, over-sized shoe. She nearly falls during her walk to the reception. The pack of scandal hungry reporters, who will be a running chorus, remark on the proceedings among themselves.
We’re quickly filled in that there’s a scandal involving the government sector Public Corporation and Dairyu Construction, with bid rigging and kickbacks alleged. Similar to an event that happened several years ago, which ended when one of the subjects of the investigation leapt from a 7th floor window. This time it looks like it will stick, to the delight of the reporters.
However, when the police arrive for an arrest, it’s for a minor figure Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara), but it discombobulates the reception even more as Wada was the head of ceremony. What follows are a series of toasts that are like opening statements for the defense in a trial. The best man’s speech by the bride’s brother Tatsuo (Tatsuya Mihashi) is hardly much better, as it ends with the threat that if the groom makes his sister unhappy, Tatsuo will kill him. To top it off, when the time comes to cut the wedding cake, two cakes arrive, one in the shape of an office building with a rose marking where the suicide that ended the earlier scandal occurred.
Through all this, the groom Koichi Nishi (Toshiro Mifune) sits passively, hardly reacting to this bizarre reception at all. Not so the reporters. In a bit of fourth wall breaking backpatting, Kurosawa has one of the reporters remark “Best one-act I’ve ever seen.” And another reporter responds “One-act? This is just the prelude.” Of course, it’s not bragging if you can back it up, and Kurosawa gets the movie off to an unusual but rousing start.
Apparently others agree with Kurosawa. The Godfather comparison may not be coincidental as Francis Ford Coppola lists The Bad Sleep Well as one of his ten favorite films and once said “The first thirty minutes of The Bad Sleep Well seem to me as perfect as any film I have ever seen.”
One of the things that the opening also does is introduce us to all the main characters and their general relationships. Especially the chain of command for the corrupt corporation with the seemingly pleasant Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori) at the head, his right hand man Moriyama (Takashi Shimura), who is clean shaven with a perpetually sour look on his face, lower down the totem pole the long faced Shirai (Akira Nishimura), all above the small Wada. They all have distinct looks which makes keeping track of them throughout the film relatively easy.
It’s also apparent that Kurosawa had mellowed somewhat towards the tabloids in the decade since Scandal. Or at least was willing to see the positive aspects of public pressure on the truly corrupt as he uses a montage of tabloid headlines and clips of what looks like news footage of arrests to update the audience on how the investigation is proceeding. With Wada and Miura of the Dairyu Corporation both under arrest and both being questioned. But neither is willing to give up any information, even though the prosecutor is getting inside information from an unknown benefactor.
The stonewalling forces the prosecution to release Wada and Miura, with the idea that Miura will be rearrested and charged with embezzlement immediately after getting a whiff of fresh air. Either Miura explains where the money went or he takes the fall.
Shades of The Godfather: Part II, Miura gets a message via his lawyer from the president, “I know you’ll see this through to the bitter end.” Like Johnny Pentangeli, Miura takes the “honorable” way out and throws himself in front of a truck. Wada disappears too, completely stifling the official investigation. The game is rigged in favor of the bad, apparently, with feudal notions of honor still prevailing in Japan.
Wada himself seems hellbent on following through for his superiors. But then the Kurosawa hero in the form of Toshiro Mifune intervenes in the suicide attempt. Nishi slaps Wada, argues that cattle and swine die kinder deaths, much to the surprise of Wada that Iwabuchi’s son-in-law would behave this way. A mystery the audience is equally wondering at this point. Kurosawa leaves us hanging, almost literally, with Nishi literally forcing Wada to make a life or death decision at the edge.
Kurosawa delays the answer to that cliffhanger as we cut to a press conference with Iwabuchi practically gloating about Wada’s disappearance and apparent suicide. With Nishi standing poker faced in the background. The two adversaries are in the same room, but only Nishi and the audience are aware of the true nature of their relationship. But, it’s at this point that the narrative shifts and we follow Nishi, as he steps out of the background. The tiger in the midst of his oblivious adversaries is a prelude to Yojimbo and almost as much fun.
It turns out Wada is alive, in the old N I auto dealership originally owned by Nishi before he moved in the corporate world. The I in “N I” standing for Itakura (Takashi Kato). With Itakura playing intentionally coy on what Nishi is up to, to Wada and the audience. Wada is still reluctant to cooperate, but Nishi drags him to his own funeral. And while they watch, he plays a tape which reveals how little regard Wada is held in.
The funeral sequence turns Wada and is a terrific piece of cinema in itself. You have three things going on, the funeral in the background, the voices on the tape, and the interaction between Wada and Nishi and they are all clear and commenting on each other.
With Wada recruited, we get to some of the most fun parts of any revenge film as we watch the plans start to come together. Often with a rather jaunty score, the film is often funny as Nishi is clearly messing with the conspirators. Money will disappear from a safety deposit box, only to reappear in the place most likely to implicate Shirai. With the poker faced Nishi watching his mischief as dissension is sowed in the ranks.
Kurosawa ups the revenge, and the fun, to Shakespearian proportions as he has Shirai haunted by the ghost of Wada.
A well formed revenge plot against deserving foes is one of the joys of cinema to watch unfold. Nishi even takes to whistling a tune as everything plays out according to plan.
But, as in all revenge stories, unexpected events unfold. The complications in this case aren’t external, at first., While Nishi married Yoshiko as part of his plan, he didn’t plan on falling in love with her, even while he’s still plotting to destroy her father. His caring is evident that when she takes a fall, Nishi outraces her loving brother to pick her up. And the attraction between the two is palpable.
The fact that Nishi has been lying to her all along is not lost on him. His revenge scheme leaves no possibility for them having a happy life together. And that introduces doubt. Nishi becomes more of a Hamlet figure as he fights his own better instincts. His opponents, on the other hand, show no signs of struggling with their conscience whatsoever. Their only hesitation is to not draw too much attention to themselves and to keep the operation running smoothly. There’s no loyalty or guilt, they just move forward. The bad sleep well after all.
The problem of Shirai being close to the breaking point drives both sides of the plot forward. Shirai interprets a conciliatory gesture by Iwabuchi and Moriyama as a request that he commit suicide and runs out, a loose cannon. Iwabuchi wastes no time in ordering Shirai’s elimination, only to have Nishi intervene and save Shirai. Although Nishi has other concerns as he drags Shirai to the very same ministry office where the last suicide occurred that saved Iwabuchi from scandal.
There Nishi reveals the truth, he’s the illegitimate son of the man that committed suicide to cover up the last scandal. Nishi gives Shirai two choices, jump to his death or drink poison. The second option ultimately drives Shirai mad as Nishi forces the “poison” down his throat.
Nishi hopes that the resulting scandal of finding Shirai in the same room of the last cover up will cause enough scandal to get the investigation going again. Unfortunately, Iwabuchi is able to cover up the latest event by shipping Shirai off to an asylum with no paper being the wiser. Beyond the frustration, we see Nishi do some serious soul searching. If the bad sleep well, it would appear that the good sleep fitfully as they struggle with their own failures and limitations.
Perhaps that doubt prevented him from pushing Shirai out the window, which would have been impossible to cover up. But he’s truly conflicted as he reveals his love of Yoshiko as another factor that’s holding him back. He recognizes the evil in his own actions and his conscience is holding him back. He’s even gone so far as to literally exchange identities with Itakura, to further his plot and to assuage his guilt.
All of these contradictions are present in one of Toshiro Mifune’s best performances. He’s not allowed many moments to go large, so most of the movie is the audience reading him in small glances and gestures. Nishi pushing his glasses up on his nose is a repeated tic. The wild ronin is perhaps still present internally, but his outside façade of a conservative Japanese businessman is completely convincing and evidence of his range as an actor.
With Nishi laid bare, the movie turns as Iwabuchi and Moriyama start their own investigation with the continuing old suicide being too prevalent to be a coincidence. All of which leads to Moriyama discovering that Nishi has been deceiving them all and rushing back to inform Iwabuchi, even as Nishi resolves to try to love Yoshiko like a true husband.
Tatsuo overhears Moriyama’s revelation and rashly exposes Nishi in front of everyone. This is fortunate for Nishi, for he could have been taken unaware at any time. Kurosawa stages the revelation in such a way that the audience and Nishi are confronted by all the accusatory faces, utilizing the entire depth of field and wide screen, of all the people that Nishi deceived. We clearly see it all from Nishi’s point of view.
The presence of Yoshiko gives Nishi the opportunity to escape as there’s no clear shot at him. And the plot moves into its end game. Iwabuchi orders a full scale man hunt for Nishi. Nishi counters by kidnapping Moriyama and holding him in an abandoned factory, without food or drink, until Moriyama gives Nishi the proof he needs. There’s a ticking clock over what will give first, Nishi’s hiding place or Moriyama’s will.
Into that, Wada intervenes. Wada spirits Yoshiko away so that she can talk sense into Nishi, who clearly loves her, and perhaps broker a peace. And for the first time, they’re absolutely honest with each other. Kurosawa starts the scene from behind Nishi, we still can’t see his true face, with the lovers divided by a long bench. That divide is bridged as Nishi and Yoshiko declare their love for each other. Kurosawa tells that story of the scene visually as much as verbally and it all comes together in a beautiful sequence in the bowels of a factory.
We primarily see Nishi’s face for the remainder of the scene, as he at last opens up about his own failures. Nishi tells of how he didn’t respond to his illegitimate father when he came looking to Nishi for help. Nishi played his own part in driving the man to suicide. And that guilt is part of what has driven him and has held him back. He still wants revenge, but he’s prepared to pay the price for his own sins and crimes by turning himself in. Nishi only asks that Yoshiko allow him to expose Iwabuchi, with the unspoken promise of waiting for him, and she agrees.
Kurosawa indulges his inner Shakespeare from there as Yoshiko returns home and Iwabuchi grows suspicious of where she’s been. Iwabuchi spins a tale of Tatsuo, who has gone out hunting, taking a gun to go hunt down and kill Nishi. It’s a ploy that breaks Yoshiko’s resolve almost instantly, although she insists that he bring her along. Iwabuchi uses a drink laced with tranquilizer, a clear call back to Gertrude drinking from the poisoned goblet, to neutralize his daughter so that he has a free hand to act. An act that also reveals the selfishness of Iwabuchi as he’ll use his own daughter to protect his skin.
From there, Kurosawa stages events as a race. Moriyama cracks and the question is will Nishi recover the evidence and win the day or will Iwabuchi’s hit men find him first. Yoshiko and Tatsuo, who realizes how Yoshiko has been used and abused by their father, also race to see if they can warn Nishi in time as all threads of the story collide.
There’s no point in completely spoiling the ending of The Bad Sleep Well, as the main points Kurosawa was making are already well established. The bad in Japan are conscience-less and appeals to their good nature are pointless. Swift and decisive action is what is necessary to deal with them. At the same time, Kurosawa understands that nobody is purely good and guiltless, and sometimes allowing in mercy and hope can work against us.
The Bad Sleep Well is a near masterpiece. It’s a bit too long; as much fun as the middle section is, it doesn’t amount to a whole lot in regards to the plot. Yoshiko isn’t developed as a character beyond the need to be beautiful and pitiable. It gets very melodramatic near the end when the film hardly needs to. The music is occasionally too on the nose. That only argues that it’s not a perfect film, but there’s no question that it’s a very significant film by a master director.
As best I can tell The Bad Sleep Well was well received, but it wasn’t a huge box office or critical hit. It didn’t put Kurosawa’s new production company in any danger, but it didn’t really put it on the map either. Kurosawa’s next film would have no such caveats attached as it would be a runaway hit, a critical success, and inspire countless imitators and practically a whole genre.
Next Time: YOJIMBO (1961)