Akira Kurosawa died in September of 1998, a month before I began shooting a humble, contemporary version of Hamlet set in Manhattan and filmed on Super 16mm. Another A. K.—Aki Kaurismaki—provided a more provocative influence with his Hamlet Goes Business (1987), a caustic farce concerning the hostile takeover of a rubber-duck factory in modern-day Finland, but as the merest tribute to Kurosawa, I wanted to include a clip from The Bad Sleep Well (1960), the Japanese master’s little-known modern-dress riff on Hamlet. I’d been charmed, and a bit baffled, by the boldness of this relatively unappreciated film, which grafts key components of Shakespeare’s plot, themes, and imagery while never quite declaring itself an outright adaptation.
That is, unlike in his treatment of Macbeth in Throne of Blood, three years earlier, Kurosawa maintained a loose grip on his Shakespearean source material, applying Hamlet as an echo chamber and a fun-house mirror rather than a detailed contour map. All the same, with medieval Denmark transposed to post–World War II Tokyo, the Hamlet parallels in The Bad Sleep Well are unmistakable. Kurosawa lifts a plot hinge from Hamlet’s third act and dramatically shoves it to the front of his movie, transforming Hamlet’s reflexive play within the play into a theatrically choreographed wedding banquet, an opening set piece that runs more than twenty minutes and features a remarkable deployment of men in suits—wedding guests in black, police and press corps in gray, champagne-popping waiters in white. Tabloid reporters trowel on exposition; the story’s key family members are introduced; and Kurosawa’s sharp, wide TohoScope frames accommodate the arrival of a massive wedding cake, sculpted in the form of Public Corporation HQ, with a single rose aimed like a carbine out of a seventh-story window.
In time, we’ll learn that the tight-lipped groom, Nishi (Toshiro Mifune), is a repressed Hamlet figure, marrying into the household of Public Corp.’s vice president, Iwabuchi, the cutthroat corporate king responsible for the death of Nishi’s father—an executive who plummeted from that particular seventh-story window. Yoshiko, the crippled (and eventually demented) Ophelia-like bride, has a Laertes-esque brother, a righteous hothead who, during his nuptial toast, offers to kill Nishi if he makes his sister unhappy. As portrayed by Masayuki Mori, the smiling villain Iwabuchi is a stiff, awkward presence, sucking on cigarillos in most of his scenes, as blandly diabolical as Uncle Claudius, as implacable as Henry Kissinger.
In his durable study of the director’s films, Donald Richie praises the wedding sequence as “one of the most dense, the most brilliant, the most incisive in Kurosawa’s entire output.” For this viewer, the picture is just as compelling once it moves past its bravura opening. Kurosawa sidelines his protagonist, but an atmosphere of fear, voyeurism, and escalating paranoia takes center stage, as the camera sticks close to skulking corporate thugs, and Shakespeare’s tragedy gets outrageously reimagined in the shadows and half-light of classic film noir. Even as more exposition unspools—is there really much dramatic excitement to be brought to a boil by the exposure of government graft?—Kurosawa sustains an inventive visual approach, serving up impressive protracted shots featuring the backs of men’s heads. Then, inspired by Hamlet’s ghost dad, the director gets maximum mileage out of Nishi’s ploy to haunt his father’s killers, making a chalk-faced Lazarus out of a plodding Polonius figure saved (rather improbably) from a suicide leap atop a sulfurous cliff.
Kurosawa clearly appreciated Shakespeare’s knack for linking the private and the political, threading a tale of corruption and revenge through a tangle of blood ties. In fact, Hamlet’s impact on this movie can be fairly assessed when you consider how rarely Kurosawa took on stories involving families—how seldom he delved into the complications of family dynamics. (His movies usually center on embattled loners.) Still, like Kaurismaki some twenty-five years down the road, Kurosawa kept his Hamlet references playful and oblique, inviting an element of outright farce. The domesticated villain wears an apron and a quilted mitten as he hovers over his outdoor grill, like a refugee from an American sitcom. Meanwhile, the mental unraveling of another Public Corporation flunky is enacted in an expressionistic style that invokes the greasepainted madmen whirling through Fritz Lang’s Mabuse films. By degrees, even the eerie score, by Masaru Sato, shifts between declarations of dread and a strain of forced whimsy.
Gradually, the focus tightens on Mifune’s bespectacled avenger, a quiet Clark Kent type revealed to be a Superman of conflicted emotion. Mifune contributes his customary ferocity, and, in the movie’s second half, acquires a certain iconic, trench-coated grandeur, though Kurosawa stops short of granting him Hamlet’s self-searching grace. (Hamlet shorn of his soliloquies, his cosmic speculations and lacerating wit, his language, is like an eagle without wings.) Rather, the film’s most Hamlet-like aspect lies in the way images of waste and ruin invade the visual scheme. Kurosawa conjures an alternate reality—a blasted munitions factory nestled in a rubble-strewn landscape, vivid vestiges of World War II—where Nishi hides out with his Horatio-like pal. These baroque ruins, radiating romantic desolation like the sites of Caspar David Friedrich paintings, undercut any wishful claims for Japan’s newfound prosperity and wholeness. The ruins also register as manifestations of the characters’ broken inner lives. Once Nishi kidnaps another company man, the site becomes a torture chamber and, inevitably, a murder scene.
The Hamlet correspondences thin out once Nishi confesses his feelings for his wilting wife, and I can’t help siding with the venerable Mr. Richie when he admits that the movie’s last scenes skid into melodrama. It’s tempting to wonder what might have shifted or sharpened if Kurosawa and his four (male) screenwriters had supplied Yoshiko with something of Ophelia’s confrontational fury, or if Nishi’s final, offscreen, defeat had been given the head-on dramatic treatment whereby Shakespeare’s hero, realizing that “readiness is all,” reaches a peak of tragic acceptance.
As it turned out, the price tag attached to a clip of The Bad Sleep Well proved unaffordable for my modest movie, but I’d like to think something of Kurosawa’s audacity found its way in. A handful of images from this film have, in any case, burned their way into my brain: the monstrous cake, the weirdly laconic gunman dispatched to kill a derailed company man, Nishi’s car crumpled on the side of the road as a train roars past. There’s also a piercing bitterness, fairly unique in Kurosawa’s work, emanating from his hero’s failure, the villain’s escape, the world’s indifference. This bitterness looks ahead to the seething battlefields of Ran (1985), Kurosawa’s apocalyptic distillation of King Lear, though in The Bad Sleep Well, the emotion feels grayer, more anguished and abject, describing our distance from Elizabethan certainty while acknowledging what Shakespeare knew about the abyss between thought and action, cause and effect, hope and ruin.
Michael Almereyda’s most recent movies are William Eggleston in the Real World and Tonight at Noon. He is currently preparing an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, set in Las Vegas.