Review: The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

However noble their intention, motives that drive us to adopt the tools of injustice we strive against must find another outlet in The Bad Sleep Well, says David Blakeslee.

It wasn’t easy, leaping into a snake pit like this.

The Criterion Collection and its subsidiary spin-offs, the Eclipse Series and the catalog of films they’ve released exclusively on their Hulu Plus channel, had drawn me into the tumultuous choppy waters of the Japanese New Wave, particularly the early films of Nagisa Oshima (Cruel Story of Youth, The Sun’s Burial) and Koreyoshi Kurahara (Intimidation, The Warped Ones), along with Nabuo Nakagawa’s Jigoku.

With an unprecedented explicitness and lack of restraint, whether in terms of graphic images, raw emotions or bitter, cynical assessments of Japan’s moral and social fiber, the Japanese New Wave and the exciting new voices that derived from it gave expression to a generation of young people who’d grown up with the Pacific War and its aftermath more as a dim childhood memory than the defining historic circumstances of their lives. It’s a fascinating era to study, and the satisfaction of making acquaintance with these emerging auteurs is only enhanced by juxtaposing them against the work of a more mature and seasoned directorial hand.

Akira Kurosawa, who’d done so much to put Japanese film firmly in front of a global audience, successfully met the challenge of his upstart competition, not by beating them at their own game but by raising his own to new levels of artistry and ambition, and by penetrating insight into the weaknesses and ethical compromises of the society around him.

The Bad Sleep Well, his sprawling 1960 modern-day epic of corruption and vengeance in the realm of business and politics, stands as a stately magnum opus that confidently absorbs the shrieks and howls of Oshima and Kurahara at their most nihilistic while reminding his audience, young and old alike, that the moral vacuum they abhor was not generated by the aimless street thugs or impoverished riff-raff of the Japanese underclass. Instead, the rot started at the top, and it’s on them, the privileged and respected authorities who set up and enforce the rules of the game, that the heavier share of responsibility ultimately falls.

Combining narrative and film elements ranging from Shakespearean tragedy, film noir, the social problem (shakai-mono) sub-genre and even elements of ghost stories and psychological thrillers, Kurosawa proves himself. once again, to be a true master of cinema,staging the film’s many moods and scenes with as deft and nimble a touch as he’s rightly celebrated for in his massively popular and famous historical period epics.

Though it’s difficult for a film set in a contemporary environment of urban affluence and corporate office space to compete on purely visual terms with the pageantry of samurai sword battles, mounted cavalry raids or magnificent medieval castles, The Bad Sleep Well offers a rich visual feast nevertheless. By 1960, even a filmmaker as averse to change as Yasujiro Ozu had begun filming in color, but Kurosawa wouldn’t make the switch for another decade yet. No matter that, for his command of the wide screen and the stark contrasts of shadow and light give The Bad Sleep Well just the right atmospheric touches as we’re drawn into this voracious whirlpool of patronized corruption, culturally-enforced suicide, kidnapping, madness and the futile pursuit of unrequited revenge.

For those seeking a general plot summary, The Bad Sleep Well is indeed a vengeance tale, chronicling the prolonged scheme of Nishi, the bastard offspring of a failed businessman who had taken his own life at the behest of the corporate overlords whom his son now plots to destroy. With single-minded determination, he cultivates a false identity, wins the confidence of the executive he secretly loathes, becomes his trusted personal secretary and connives to marry his beautiful but disabled daughter.

The film opens with a tightly-paced wedding scene in which a savvy throng of reporters, sensing the eruption of a business scandal, sarcastically deliver the opening exposition that fills us in on the back story while emulating the “play within a play” scene from Hamlet, in which a staged re-enactment of a past crime is used to gauge the guilt-stricken reaction of key suspects. It’s an ingenious method for grabbing an audience’s attention while efficiently spelling out details in a much less cumbersome manner than would normally be taken to convey so much information.

The Hamlet parallels, frequently cited when The Bad Sleep Well is placed alongside Kurosawa’s other Shakespearean adaptations (Throne of Blood, Ran), continue primarily throughout:

– Nishi’s conflicted wavering away from his homicidal, judgement inflicting purpose when he comes up to the moment of fully carrying out his revenge

– the Laertes/Ophelia echoes found in the relationship between Nishi’s wife and her rash, over-protective brother who, in delivering a wedding toast to his new brother-in-law, impulsively vows to kill Nishi if he ever causes his sister any unhappiness; and…

– in a clever device that injects ghost sightings into the storyline in such a way as to loosen the grip on sanity that some of the more psychologically fragile characters struggle to maintain – most vividly among them, the droopy-eyed Akira Nishimura (as Shirai), who uses his sad-sack facial features to great effect here, just as he did in Kurahara’s Intimidation released just a few months earlier, which, incidentally, serves as a fitting companion piece to The Bad Sleep Well.

As ingeniously creative and technically impressive as Kurosawa proves himself to be on the craftsmanship side of this project, perhaps the most memorable and surprising aspects of The Bad Sleep Well are to be found in the disciplined, subtle performance of Toshiro Mifune, who steps away from his usual wild-man persona to portray a hardened protagonist frustrated to find himself troubled by an inextinguishable spark of compassion that only serves to complicate his plans, and the unflinching gaze into the void that we’re subjected to by the film’s darkly pessimistic ending.

After working through the unexpected maelstrom of emotions stirred up by the realization of his scheme, Nishi reasserts his grim determination, putting all the pieces in place to bring his father’s killers to justice – even though he has to go to extreme lengths, imprisoning a key witness in the wreckage of an underground vault left abandoned after one of the war’s devastating firebombings. His captive, an aging Takashi Shimura, is pushed to the brink of madness himself due to the deprivations of food and solitary confinement – quite an amazing reversal from the two great actors’ roles in Seven Samurai from just six years earlier.

But circumstances unfold in a way that once again prove correct the old Robert Burns line about the “best laid schemes of mice and men” often going askew (to use the English translation) and ultimately coming to naught. Don’t get your hopes up for a feel-good, redemptive, Hollywood ending. The message implicit in the title, that the predatory powers who exploit the weak and dependent are maddeningly ensconced in comforts and remain untouchable to those who cry out and demand justice in this world, continues to ring true in our own day. Nishi’s desperate ploys to try to work around this conundrum, and the toll that his evil deeds take upon him and the few for whom he dares to indulge his affection, prevent him from being a role model worthy of emulation. However noble their intention, motives that drive us to adopt the tools of injustice we strive against must find another outlet.

This piece was originally featured on David’s blog, Criterion Reflections.

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