Few would argue that Akira Kurosawa is one of the greatest directors the world has ever seen. The number of masterpieces he produced is simply staggering. If you look back at the catalogue of his works, you notice that at the heart of many of these great films are partnerships with other extremely talented individuals. His long collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, for example, is usually regarded as one of the greatest director/actor partnerships in the history of cinema. Kurosawa’s work with composer Masaru Sato is another case in point (have a look at – and a listen to – Yojimbo and Sanjuro and try to imagine these films with a different soundtrack). Another who brought out the best in Kurosawa was The Bard himself – Ran, Kurosawa’s take on King Lear, is regarded as one of his finest films, while Throne of Blood would have to be one of the best Macbeth adaptations you could ever hope to see. In The Bad Sleep Well, Kurosawa turns his attention to Hamlet, although this is by no means a literal adaptation – beyond a brilliant ghost scene and some thematic similarities, the Hamlet connections are not particularly prominent. But even so, with Shakespeare’s source material lurking somewhere in the background, and Mifune and Sato riding shotgun once again, you know you’re in for a great film, even if it never quite reaches the heights of Kurosawa’s better known Shakespeare adaptations.
The Bad Sleep Well is a story of revenge, and an exploration of corporate corruption in the midst of Japan’s post-war recovery, all clothed in the trappings of top-notch film noir. Koichi Nishi (Mifune) is the secretary to the Vice-President of the Public Corporation for Land Development, a company involved in various degrees of shady dealings. Nishi marries his boss’s crippled daughter, which provokes rumours that he views the nuptials as his ticket to the top. But it soon becomes clear that he has another motive – revenge. In the early stages of the film, Nishi is very much at the periphery of events as the narrative focuses on those at the centre of the corruption. Gradually, his character is brought to the fore and the reasons for his revenge become clearer as the boundary between what is right and wrong blurs. This is a man who is determined to have his revenge, no matter what – or whom – he has to sacrifice along the way.
Mifune does a great job of playing his character’s thirst for revenge against the ebbing away of his morality (and the resultant strain on his conscience), but it has to be said that this is not your typical Mifune performance. He is almost unrecognisable in this role, particularly for those accustomed to seeing him in films like Yojimbo. Clean-shaven and sporting a suit and a pair of glasses, he looks, dare I say it, mild-mannered (there is a definite Clark Kent vibe going on here). Watching him, you can’t help but think that, sooner or later, the real Mifune is going to break free from this façade, spontaneously grow a beard and start growling at people and/or killing anyone who gets in his way. It’s probably not too much of a spoiler to say that this never really eventuates, although he does growl at people from time to time (then again, is there a Mifune film in which he doesn’t growl?)
One of the strengths of The Bad Sleep Well, as with most of Kurosawa’s works, is the way it’s shot. The lighting and use of shadows is particularly noteworthy, as you’d expect in a film noir. In this nightmarish corporate world, the darkness of an office late at night is pierced cleanly by the light of a torch, and shadows loom large, writhing on the walls like figments of a twisted imagination. Characters walk home from work, stepping into the glow of the streetlights and back into darkness, seeing ghosts in the shadows until the headlights of a passing car washes everything away like a bad dream. The use of light and dark in this film is truly masterful.
During its first hour or so, The Bad Sleep Well looks well on its way to being a masterpiece. The first half of the film is quite stunning. The supporting actors take centre stage in the early going, and there are some great performances on show – Ko Nishimura is brilliant as a man driven to madness, while the always wonderful Takashi Shimura makes a welcome appearance. The gradual unfolding of the plot and of the protagonist’s motivations is another highlight. However, some issues with pacing and plot hold the film back somewhat, and the second half of the film just doesn’t seem to live up to the terrific standard set during the first hour or so.
Despite its flaws, The Bad Sleep Well is a great film – it features some memorable scenes that are the equal of just about anything from Kurosawa’s more well-known works. It’s a shame that Kurosawa’s non-period films are so often overlooked – hopefully The Bad Sleep Well will one day get the attention it deserves. If you can wrap your head around Toshiro Mifune looking like Clark Kent, then there’s every chance you’ll enjoy this film.