Akira Kurosawa: The Bad Sleep Well (1960) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Akira Kurosawa: The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

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The Bad Sleep Well is so tediously boring in its opening sequence that no matter how much I tried to stay invested, or follow the multitude of characters, or not fall asleep, it was all to no avail. I'd have rather gotten 1/10th of the endless exposition Akira Kurosawa gives us in the film's first 20 or so minutes and been allowed to get lost in the plot for the first act. The characters are often interchangeable, but the way they inhabit an ominous corporate landscape (the true threat and reach of which is the real subject of the film) begins to lend them more interest and personality than is actually embedded in the screenplay, and it would have been fitting to have a little extra initial confusion over who's who and what their roles are in the gradually more complicated scandal that sets up the story.

This movie is strange for me in that A) it got substantially better as it went along, despite my crushing boredom at the outset, and B) it seems like a movie I should love, but I don't. Kurosawa's strength here is that he creates a moody, dangerous corporate culture infused with an atmosphere suited to espionage. As individual scenes, there are a lot of great moments where he portrays a group of individuals quietly but directly plotting each others' demise. But as it plays, the movie is too long, and it takes too much time to get to material of any interest.

Once the characters are knee deep in plot developments — none of which are really twists so much as carefully calculated reveals — and a careful game of chess is being played between individuals whose relationships dictate a level of cautiousness that itself creates suspense, I was engaged simply on the level of the filmmaking. Again though, this was more thanks to Kurosawa's technical craft than any successful storytelling. A good test of this is that at the end, where (without spoiling anything) I appreciated the film's devotion to the story's distinctly Kurosawa-esque defeatist worldview with regard to the potential of the individual in a corrupt society — that's different than having an emotional reaction based on the fate of the characters.

It's also interesting that this is one of his less slavishly devoted adaptations — here he takes Hamlet as his inspiration for the setup, but lets the story go where it needs to in order to reflect a more contemporary theme. Had he freed it up even more and cut down on some of the more unnecessary plotting to tighten up the pace, I think the movie would have worked substantially better. As it is, I feel like I just caught the end of a movie I really liked and now need to go rent it so I can see it from the beginning.If this seems like the movie you should love but don’t, allow me to step up to the plate and combat some of these outrageous accusations you make of the opening scenes and the rest of the film.  This is my third time through The Bad Sleep Well and I’ve finally given in to just about every frame.  Only Ikiru is any better and this one plays like the cynical nightmare of corporatism than the endless gridlock and despair of government bureaucracy.

Funny, taking the long-term view on things as we have, it’s very clear Kurosawa has a massive mistrust of organizations and their principles.

My initial hyperbole aside, I don’t feel your boredom is in those opening scenes.  I love how absolutely doomed Kurosawa makes the entire affair seem starting with something we haven’t discussed much – the sound design.  Everything rings hollow in the great hall at the wedding Vice President Iwabuchi’s (Masayuki Mori) daughter Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa) to the seemingly reserved Koichi (Toshiro Mifune.)  The echo of the elevator continues into the footsteps of the reporters, the microphone reverberates for far too long as each one of Iwabuchi’s subordinates speak, and when that final amazing shot of the cake with the rose is rolled into the hall we hear the empty clatter of the wheels and understand what we’re going to see long before the premonition arrives.

I was surprised how excited I was to relive these scenes again, and felt my heart pound harder when the tabloids started spinning onscreen regaling us with Iwabuchi’s troubles.  This is long before anyone knows what Koichi is up to, but continues along that doomed tone perfectly and into the rest of the film.  The Bad Sleep Well is, at many points, like the bad-cop Capra to the good-cop we saw in Scandal.  There’s no institution of truth here, just the rattle of endless commerce with everyone plotting to get ahead but terrified to take the necessary steps.  The previous film seems alluded to in one line of dialogue about how “Underlings sacrifice themselves to maintain scandal.”That’s part of why I loved the introduction of Iwabuchi’s lackeys and their troubles.  The tones are subtle, but the cracked voice of Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara) is what separates him from the trio.  Like you said, the target is corporate corruption, both internal and external, which is why Wada’s weak link of the trio that serves under Iwabuchi (which also includes the great Takashi Shimura and Ko Nishimura) is subtly introduced through the delivery of the dialogue and then spirals into a volcanic nightmare.

This brings me to the visuals, which are quite possibly the best set up of any Kurosawa film to this point.  Seven Samurai may be a masterpiece of pacing, but when Koichi steps out from the smoke of the volcano a full thirty minutes into the film to finally start explaining what he’s doing, it’s pure myth in action.  Kurosawa’s dark humor is on full display as well, especially in a scene that may have been partly inspirational for the closet shot in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai when Shirai (Nishimura) goes through a near-cliché of noir alleyways of shots and shadows only to stop and gaze longingly at a fedora shop.

There’s so much I love that I’m a bit surprised you didn’t like it more, especially given all the dark and surreal humor on display (see: Koichi putting Shirai through perpetual torment.)  But before I hand this off to you for a response I believe I’ve been mistaken about this films influence.  Throne of Blood and Ran are so clearly taken after Shakespeare’s Macbeth and King Lear that I have erroneously bought into the idea that The Bad Sleep Well is adapted from Hamlet.

I did think this for a long time, but now I’m not so sure.  They both deal with corrupt institutions of power and the sons who carry on the weight into the future, but that’s where the similarities ended for me this time.  Hamlet is much more literal in its depiction of the supernatural influence on the world, which is very much absent in The Bad Sleep Well.  The same is true of the lingering sexual impulses of the former, also mostly missing in the latter.  I could go on, but with this viewing it feels like a lot of these comparisons are superficial at worst and coincidental at best.You hit on a few points of interest for me: the influence of Hamlet and a connection with Ikiru. We both agree that the play's influence here is less significant and direct than with Kurosawa's other adaptations, and that it's stronger for it—I wonder if my anticipation of a more direct translation colored my experience of it. I don't know if I realized it until you started describing the opening sequence just now, but the initial wedding scene played to me much like this: “A wedding is taking place that affects an established power structure like in Hamlet. A man has died under suspicious circumstances like in Hamlet. There is a threat to the patriarchy like in Hamlet.”

My expectation that this was going to be “Akira Kurosawa's Hamlet” made the exposition of the opening scenes both unnecessary and boring. I still think they go on too long and kind of dull my level of interest in the story from the start, but when you remove the preconceived notions of the play's role in the whole thing, they do at least seem to be setting up the characters and plot in a necessary way.

This brings me to Ikiru. One of the things that always starts to wear on me a little bit in that movie—albeit significantly less this last time around—is the “Kurosawa Exposition” of the last act. We're subject to a lot of people telling us what happened instead of experiencing it ourselves. In that movie, said tactic has a distinct and unique role, as it's necessary to shift the focus to Watanabe's legacy as carried on by his peers. The effect is a bit jarring, but we need to be removed from the immediacy of his experience in order to get to the bigger picture of the film. Here, as the exposition goes on and we're slowly introduced to the people and events that will shape the movie through the reporters' conversations, the only other thing to keep us occupied is the bland wedding ceremony. I get the ominous tone you're describing, but it fades for me ever so steadily as the wedding drags on.All of this contributes to why I like The Bad Sleep Well so much more as it goes on, and maybe would even more on a second viewing. You pull the Hamlet shackles off of it and it no longer suffers from unnecessary attempts to push it into a Shakespeare-shaped box. You also get into scenes that are fascinating in that not much is really happening but so much is obviously at stake. Then there are the moments of incredible energy, like the volcano scene you mention.

The one thing we are in entire and utter agreement on is the visual filmmaking on display. Kurosawa finds the perfect notes with which to portray a world of extreme menace lurking underneath the mundane and everyday, and this is what I love about the movie. Mifune's performance is a perfectly calibrated level of rage and anxiety steadily held in check under an ordinary cookie-cutter businessman facade. The set toward the end where Mifune holds Shimura's character in a bombed out vault of some sort is a great literal embodiment of their respective situations at that point in the movie. I don't doubt at all that there's a lot to love here.

Of all the movies we've watched so far, there are only two that I feel like I want to watch a second time before the end of the project: No Regrets for Our Youth and this one. Perhaps I'll have more to say at the end.I really hope so, mostly because this film holds another special place for me.  As I said it’s the cynical side of Ikiru, the one that says no matter how hard you try the corporate machine is going to wear you down into whatever form is most beneficial to it.  That is another fear of mine – that someone smarter, with more resources, or just plain luckier than I will be in a position to force me into a professional role I don’t want.  As much as I enjoy Koichi’s plotting it’s just another dark fantasy while the real movers and shakers stay just out of reach.

The Bad Sleep Well is one of the only realistic apocalypses I’ve seen on film because it occurs on a mythic scale made personal.  Everyone is doomed but a few people will be able to hold on to their trump card by pure luck more than anyone else.  I don’t believe there’s a more cynical Kurosawa film made, and it makes sense that it’s made in the noir vein.  Rashomon is a possible challenger, but even then the implication of “we make our own truth” is that the reality we falsify could still be a happy and productive one.

There’s nothing productive in The Bad Sleep Well, just a mess of schemers that will never amount to more than basic murderers.  Our moments of triumph come as evil victories held in shadow in forgotten corridors of structures long forgotten.  The hysteria and mania of the victim is quickly eclipsed by the opportunistic snake, no matter the noble purpose.

Nobility is lacking in this film.  Even when we finally learn why Koichi plots as he does, there’s no dignity behind it.  Just a ceaseless machine rewarding the ugly ones.

Cheery, huh?

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Next week: It's Yojimbo at last.


Posted by Andrew

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