For this year’s Switcheroo Month, I decided to write about a lesser known film by one of the most reputable directors around—Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (1960). Set in then contemporary mid-Twentieth Century Japan, The Bad Sleep Well is the story of Koichi Nishi (Toshiro Mifune) seeking revenge for the death of his father. At first glance, the film might seem best paired with Kurosawa’s crime films like High and Low (1963), based on Ed McBain’s novel King’s Ransom; Stray Dog (1949); and Drunken Angel (1948). But The Bad Sleep Well also has a lot in common with Kurosawa’s two adaptations of Shakespeare: Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985). There is a lot of the Bard in The Bad Sleep Well, specifically Hamlet. I don’t think Kurosawa and his writers were doing a new staging of Hamlet, as so many directors and theater companies have for reasons ranging from making Shakespeare more accessible to emphasizing its timeless, universal qualities. Kurosawa could have made a more straight up adaptation of Shakespeare like Throne of Blood and Ran, but he doesn’t. In The Bad Sleep Well, Kurosawa uses Hamlet to humanize a noir story of public corruption while highlighting a pattern of collusion between government officials and corporations that continues to this day.
Co-written by Kurosawa with Eijiro Hisaita, Hideo Oguni, Ryuzo Kikushima and Shinobu Hashimoto and based on a story by Kurosawa’s nephew Yoshio Inoue, The Bad Sleep Well is a film with an interesting combination of stylized elements including Japanese theatrical traditions, Noir and Shakespeare. Nishi’s whistling in the film’s opening credits fits right in with the sometimes jaunty and sometimes sinister whistling of noir film, but it also echoes a Nōh theater flute–something that also appears in Masaru Sato’s soundtrack for Throne of Blood. (Sato also added his distinctive sound to The Bad Sleep Well). The ghostly apparition of an apparently dead man (Kamatari Fujiwara’’s Wada) recalls both Japanese theatrical tradition and the ghost in Hamlet but with a strong noir flavor.
Corrupt executive Shirai’s (Kō Nishimura) increasingly heavy and ghastly make-up is far more stylized than the naturalistic look of the other characters, making him seem otherworldly and, again, theatrical. There are also elements that are reminiscent of Shakespearean theater–speeches that are almost soliloquies, listening characters, and even a possible reference to the Globe Theater in the balconied foyer of the Tudor-style house belonging to Nishi’s father-in-law. It’s easy to miss some of these elements because The Bad Sleep Well is deeply noir–from the dark streets, unsavory gunman, brutal interrogations, often self-destructive protagonist, and the the futility of the law to the brightly lit, pan focus wedding and funeral that hearken back to noir’s less shadowy French Poetic Realist influences. There is also the night club called simply, Noir. Like many American Noir and Poetic Realist movies, The Bad Sleep Well focuses on how personal and social corruption are intertwined and how they lead to characters’ doom.
The film opens at the wedding of Koichi Nishi and Yoshiko Iwabuchi (Kyōko Kagawa). Nishi is the secretary of Yoshiko’s father, Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori) and good friend of Yoshiko’s dissolute but fiercely protective brother, Tatsuo (Tatsuya Mihashi). Iwabuchi is the vice president of the Public Land Development Corporation, a government run entity that awards contracts to construction companies for land development. We discover all this information from journalists attending the fancy reception. It is not a fun occasion. It kicks off with the arrest of the master of ceremonies, Public Corp officer Wada, on charges of bribery related to a larger scandal involving Dairyu Construction. The reception is fraught with sweaty substitute MC’ing and speeches. A Dairyu executive even disavows any wrongdoing while ostensibly offering his congratulations to the not-very-happy looking couple. Tatsuo is drunk and gives a speech where he tells the assembled guests that if Nishi hurts his sister, he’ll kill him. And the banquet is interrupted by the arrival of a second cake—one made to look like an office building with a rose jutting from a seventh floor window.
The cake’s designed to catch the conscience of corrupt corporate executives. It’s the very building where an executive named Furuya leaped to his death. The assembled executives are alarmed that someone knows not only about their scheme to steal ¥3 billion from the public, but that they are willing to kill to cover it up.
Nishi, for his part, is watchful. Much of the first half of the film, only his eyes reveal anything about his inner state. (There is an excellent video essay by Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou about both Kurosawa’s uses of geometry in his films and Mifune’s eyes in The Bad Sleep Well here). Nishi is the perfect secretary–apparently discrete, present when needed but not intrusive. We do see glimpses of something more going on inside of him, though, in his ferocious rush to catch Yoshiko when she falls in one scene and their near kiss moments after. We see this same passion when he stands between an executive bent on killing himself on the orders of his superiors and an active volcano. As he so often does in other films, Mifune radiates a barely contained ferocity that rivals the volcano. And as Nishi reveals more and more of himself, we see it in his brutal questioning of executives behind the conspiracy that led to Furuya’s death. Nishi has his own scheme. He has traded identities with his best friend, the real Koichi Nishi (Takeshi Kato), giving up the name Itakura so he can exact revenge for his father, a Public Corp officer who was coerced into killing himself by leaping from a window of the same building recreated in the cake, and later depicted on a postcard left in a safe deposit box.
Nishi insinuates himself into his father’s world. He befriends Tatsuo Iwabuchi at Nishi’s car dealership.** He marries into Iwabuchi’s family. He even moves into Iwabuchi’s Tudor home. As Vice President Iwabuchi’s secretary, he is in a perfect position to see everything while being ignored–convenient for him but less and less convenient for the conspirators. Nishi believes he is perfectly positioned to destroy the men responsible for his father’s death. But as Wada observes, Nishi struggles against his own nature. His vengeance is cruel and brutal, but he is not the cold man Iwabuchi and Iwabuchi’s secret superior are. He does not have their utter disregard for others’ lives. Like Hamlet, Nishi must screw his courage to the sticking place. He tells Wada and the real Nishi, “It’s not easy hating evil. You have to stoke the hatred until you become evil yourself.”
Nishi does struggle, though. He feels like he is betraying his father and his purpose by falling in love with Yoshiko. “So I’ve forced my anger, becoming more brutal than I’ve had to,” he tells them. But he is facing a system that does not have to force its evil, its anger or its brutality.
The setting of the film’s final act highlights the cruel hierarchy and the callous sacrifice of loyal underlings’ lives to protect superiors. We leave the corporate offices, the elegant Japanese restaurant, and Iwabuchi’s Elizabethan mansion for the blasted ruin of a munitions factory. Nishi holds his most important witness, Moriyama (Takeshi Shimura), at the factory and starves the man into giving up his colleagues. The ruins are also where Nishi’s goal changes from a revenge that will likely lead to his death to a more life-affirming plan to hold a press conference revealing the scheme and then going to jail. He thinks he’s found a way he can in good conscience avenge his father and live for himself and for Yoshiko. And we find out that Itakura and Nishi were conscripted from high school and forced to work making munitions here during World War II.* They were at the factory when it was carpet-bombed. It’s implicit that the men who conscripted children into making weapons, profited from war, and manipulated ideas of duty for their own social, professional, and financial benefit are the same men ordering their executives to kill others or themselves for the same reason now. The men and families who profited from the war implicitly profit from this corruption between government and corporations. As they sacrificed children to their war profiteering in the name of the empire, they sacrifice their employees by convincing them it is their duty to commit suicide to protect their superiors and their company. The disregard they showed for children forced to work in factories, they have now for the people who work for them and more broadly, the people of Japan. If Iwabuchi and his anonymous superior weren’t behind the factory’s particular evil, well, men exactly like them profited from the war, the destruction of other places, and from Japan’s post-war reconstruction.
In moving from the office to the ruins, Kurosawa and his writers hammer home the destructiveness of corruption in then contemporary Japan. “I made the film too soon,” Kurosawa said about The Bad Sleep Well.*** They had to script the film carefully to avoid references to current scandals or corrupt officials. The studio was concerned about offending powerful people—even though it was Kurosawa’s first film for his independent company, Kurosawa Productions. Kurosawa was not allowed to reveal who Iwabuchi’s superior was. This person could only be depicted as a voice on a phone. It was a source of frustration to Kurosawa and at least in the English-language interviews I’ve seen, Kurosawa never revealed who he intended it to be. It’s possible that no matter how long he waited, he would never be able to reveal what he wanted to reveal in The Bad Sleep Well. It is an uncomfortable parallel to Nishi’s attempts to reveal the men who murdered his father and their corruption.
Nishi dies like Hamlet, like many a noir protagonist, before he can reveal the truth. The cover-up continues, even spinning his murder into a tragic story of a promising young executive dying in a drunk driving accident. It’s depressing, but it is, in its way a call to action that any other resolution might blunt.
*Kinji Fukasaku’s similar experience of being taken from school to work in a factory during World War II informed Fukasaku’s Battle Royale (2000) as well. Read more here. Via this Cultural Gutter Note that has another piece with a deeper dive into Battle Royale here.
**There is a bit of Koichi Nishi / Itakura in Mad Men‘s Don Draper / Dick Whitman.
***Quoted from Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful To Create, a short documentary included on the Criterion release of The Bad Sleep Well.
Carol Borden has exchanged identities with Carol Borden in order to further many schemes.
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