A gray flannel ghost story in which the living haunt the dead, The Bad Sleep Well (1960) remains the least appreciated of Akira Kuro-sawa’s midperiod collaborations with Toshiro Mifune—a fate for which we have only the other Kurosawa-Mifune films to blame.
Outswaggered by Yojimbo’s rambunctious ronin, who skulked into the imaginations of audiences the following year, and upstaged by the collaborators’ final masterpiece, High and Low (1962)—in which Kurosawa’s airtight storytelling and Mifune’s anguished moralist-millionaire confront the go-go nihilism of the Japanese new wave, and find Noh way out—The Bad Sleep Well has kept to the shadows of the director’s oeuvre. A fitting place, perhaps, for a film whose bitter intent—to throw open the windows of Japanese corporate corruption and air out the stench—is staged as a series of haltingly revealed motivations, haggard resurrections, and harrowing defeats. Fitting, but hardly fair.
The first film made by the director’s independent production company, The Bad Sleep Well may have found Kurosawa freed from oversight by the suits in Toho’s accounting office, but its tale of industrial ruthlessness stems far less from any specific desire to indict his longtime studio’s occasional incomprehension of the projects under-taken by its most celebrated employee than from the genre-wide concerns of the shakai-mono—the social problem film—from which all of Kurosawa’s films were born.
A resurrection of the 1930s “tendency films,” which had been outlawed by the wartime government, the shakai-mono blossomed in the postoccupation ruins of Japanese cinema, fertilized first by the rather saccharine satirical impulses popular during the period, and soon cultivated for use as increasingly bitter, and sometimes altogether emetic, medicinal herbs. At issue among the shakai-mono’s social concerns were responsibility for the horrors of war (as in Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition [1958–60]), class struggle and the plight of the poor (avowed leftist Kaneto Shindo’s forte), the moral vagaries of the middle class (particularly in Kon Ichikawa’s fanged comedies), and the social damnations underwritten by Japan’s postwar “economic miracle”—to which the bravest black-satirist of the era, Yasuzo Masumura, would add the alienations of delinquent youth and the agonies of sexual politics.
What rendered Kurosawa’s contribution to the shakai-mono so distinctive was his transformation of the lone-hero paradigm of the American western in ways that demanded of his heroes a sense of personal responsibility for the social ills of their era, even as they complicated and contradicted that demand by questioning, and finally despairing entirely of, the possibility that even the most enlightened individual crusaders might somehow triumph over the indifference of institutionalized inhumanity and corporatized moral disdain. Born of the most heroic mannerisms and impulses, Kurosawa’s cinema increasingly came to describe a world where heroes weren’t allowed, and the more one struggled toward righteousness, the farther one would inevitably fall.
Indeed, one might profitably consider The Bad Sleep Well as a nightmarish revision of Ikiru (1952), with the rosy glow of Takeshi Shimura’s postmortem triumph over bureaucratic indifference replaced by the cold-sweat fatalism of Mifune’s inability to topple Tokyo’s towers of power; or as a repressive rethink of the atomic bombardment that turned Mifune’s psyche expressionistically inside out in I Live in Fear (1955), only this time, so emotionally buttoned-down is Kurosawa’s cinematic certainty about the invisible machinations of executive action that even his hero’s final hour is hidden from our scrutiny. Had a reflexively inclined nihilist like Nagisa Oshima been in charge of the production, he might very well have entitled it I Die Offscreen.
Frequently pigeonholed, with the Macbeth-like Throne of Blood (1957) and the Lear-tilted Ran (1985), as an-other of Kurosawa’s Shakespeare adaptations, The Bad Sleep Well certainly borrows once again from the Bard, though it remains distinctly disparate from those costume-drama cousins by donning conspicuously contemporary garb, retailoring Hamlet for successful integration among the three-piece genre-suit patterns of Robert Wise’s corporation noir Executive Suite (1954) and the cutthroat industrial espionage of Masumura’s Black Test Car (1962). Fueled by personal anguish, a man called Nishi (Mifune) concocts an elaborate plan to bring down a cabal of upper-echelon construction company men—led by the implacable Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori)—with apparent ties to the inner circles of Japan’s highest government officials. Nishi’s motivation: to avenge the murder of the father he never knew, a midlevel executive driven to “suicide” to preserve his superiors’ positions. His method: infiltration by matrimony, as Nishi marries Iwabuchi’s daughter and becomes his father-in-law’s apparent right-hand man.
From its opening scene, in which the high ceremony of the Nishi-Iwabuchi marriage is repeatedly reduced to broad farce and lost face—first by police detectives bearing a warrant for company official Wada’s arrest, then by the caustic commentary of a corps of tabloid reporters eager to rake the muck of unfolding scandal—The Bad Sleep Well announces its intention to defoliate decorum and expose impropriety at every turn. And though cinematic reflexivity is not traditionally thought to be chief among Kurosawa’s strengths, there are nevertheless numerous such moments implicit throughout that opening cere-mony, as if—paused between his studio system past and the unknowability of the career independence he’d just begun—the director meant to include everything from in-jokes on silent-era Japanese classics (as when a symbolically placed blossom on the wedding cake denotes the murder of the groom’s father as much as it caustically recalls the title of Mikio Naruse’s Wife, Be Like a Rose ) to prefigurations of the mutilating shrieks of the Japanese new wave cinema yet to come. The latter can be seen when the bride’s brother toasts his new in-law with the warning, “If you make my sister unhappy, I swear I’ll kill you!”—a sentiment echoed later that same year in Oshima’s Night and Fog in Japan, where a similarly savage wedding toast is offered: “I’d like to tear you all to bits!”
Typically Kurosawan, however, is the degree to which, beneath that opening babble of whispered insinuations and whiskey-lubricated screeds, the film’s moral core waits coiled in all-too-telling silence; and though he is mute for the first thirty minutes of the movie, it is Mifune’s stoic Nishi who will soon be shown as the poker-faced pivot around which the film’s every action and reaction will revolve. The straight man behind an ever-tightening noose of clever manipulations and manic reaction shots, in a comedy as black as a hanged man’s tongue, Nishi bides his time in silence, waiting for the moment when the movie’s mottled mirth will be written on the faces of the middlemen through whom he plans to topple Iwabuchi: Kamatari Fujiwara’s ashen Wada, Takashi Shimura’s putty-mouthed Moriyama, and Akira Nishimura’s dehydrated Shirai.
And while modern are the film’s manners, one might easily reimagine The Bad Sleep Well as a costumed period piece, with Mifune’s vengeful Nishi redefining the ronin as a shaved, showered, and freshly bespectacled samurai without severance pay, and the three corporate stooges he’ll sacrifice in the course of his plotted vengeance as ripe for redirection as any of Rashomon’s relativity-challenged and easily bamboozled bush boobs. Yet, in their dressed-for-boardroom-success finery, that ill-fated threesome come across as even greater buffoons—especially Nishimura, who gives the panicked performance of a lifetime—and Kurosawa exaggerates the trio’s hypertheatrical descent into the maelstrom with a fistful of greasepaint and a succession of -loaded locales: shadow-choked suburban lanes, demolished munitions factories, cryptlike bunkers, and a construction site that seems to have opened a direct portal to hell.
The moral question at the heart of the film is this: do Nishi’s ends—exposing the evil that company men do—justify his means? Is his merciless exploitation of Iwabuchi’s daughter, the haplessly handicapped Yoshiko, warranted to avenge his father’s death and strike a blow against institutionalized corruption? Shatteringly, the film admits no solutions, climaxing only in Nishi’s ultimate admission of failure—“I guess I don’t hate them enough”—and in this, it remains the most bleakly modern of Kurosawa’s black-and-white shadow plays: a pulverizing vortex of midnight phone calls and offscreen murders that ultimately swallows the valorous and smothers the innocent, while forever masking the faces of the mighty and the malign.
And yet, as if determined to respond to the facelessness of institutionalized evil with the forces that remain most masterfully within his command, Kurosawa slashes back at his invisible foes with a series of muscularly supercinematic set pieces and heroic visual designs. Among them: that mysterious wedding cake in the shape of the office building from which Nishi’s father was pushed, or thrown; a blisteringly Wellesian funeral, complete with mocking cha-cha musical score, for a man not yet dead; and, finally, in a room beneath the earth, a fallen foundation beam that cuts the TohoScope screen in half, separating love from honor and burying what’s left of the movie’s laughter beneath an avalanche of screams.
These, finally, are the real meanings of The Bad Sleep Well: a wide-eyed accumulation of symbolic subversions and devastating widescreen distractions from what are perhaps the director’s darkest conclusions about the effi-cacy of individual heroics in the faceless modern age. Ikiru or Ikinai—to be or not to be? No, that’s not the question. What Kurosawa means to ask us—even as he asks it of himself—is, how do you topple a sleeping giant when you’re shackled to the very shadow upon which it surely will land?
Chuck Stephens, a contributing editor to Film Comment, writes frequently for the Village Voice, Cinema Scope, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and a variety of publications around the world. He lives in Bangkok.