Again I don’t understand why ‘The Bad Sleep Well’ enjoys the top place among Akira Kurosawa’s least appreciated films. I think Kurosawa himself has to take the blame for this because along with Toshiro Mifune, he has given the world such powerful films that it’s a very tough task to rank his works on a set of pre-decided parameters. Another reason for this which is very important is that western critics love his samurai dramas more than his modern takes and that’s why their views are skewed. Some also consider it an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and that argument can be given the benefit of doubt. The Bad Sleep Well, which was the first film coming out of his own production, is certainly a great piece of art.
Honestly, I did not expect such an ironical take on high-level corruption from Kurosawa. It’s more than just irony; actually, it qualifies to be called despairing. The story is set in Post-War Japan and starts with a high profile wedding reception scene where everyone is silent apparently in anticipation of something bad to happen. A crowd of newspaper reporters and photographers are waiting eagerly for the anticipation to become a reality and gossiping in the meantime about the scams and kickbacks in the corporation. The bride’s father Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori) is the Vice-President of Unexploited Land Development Corporation, a large public sector construction company, and the groom Koichi Nishi (Toshiro Mifune) is his personal secretary and a friend of Iwabuchi’s son Tatsuo (Tatsuya Mihashi). The bride Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa) is lame and the journalists are gossiping that Nishi is marrying her to climb the ladder. The bad happens when the Police interrupts the function and arrests corporate assistant officer Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara) in charges of corruption and bribery. After that, a cake in the shape of a multistory building is received from a mystery man whose sight is terrifying for the contract officer Shirai (Ko Nishimura). This opening scene is simply brilliant ant sets the temper of the film. That mystery man is not kept in dark for long and he turns out to be Nishi who has changed his identity and married Iwabuchi’s daughter to avenge his father’s death. His father, Furuya, was the assistant chief in the corporation and jumped off the corporate office building five years ago, creating a dead end in the ongoing investigation at that time against Iwabuchi and the administrative officer Moriyama (Takashi Shimura).
But the story is not as simple as it seems. There are several noteworthy points that make this film extraordinary. Furuya was the illegitimate father of Nishi and he himself was corrupt. Nishi hated him most in the world. Then why is he taking such extreme measures to take revenge for the death of his corrupt illegitimate father? Iwabuchi loves his daughter more than anything in this world and so does her brother Tatsuo. What is more important for Nishi bringing the corrupt to justice or his revenge? Is it acceptable to use his innocent wife Yoshiko as an instrument to achieve what he intends? Is it acceptable to use an innocent disabled girl as a sacrificial lamb for the greater good of the society? Revenge is good or bad or does this depend on the results? All these questions are not left unanswered if we watch closely.
Coming back to the plot, Nishi uses the corrupt officials Wada, Shirai and Moriyama to gather evidence against the mighty ones. He prevents Wada from committing suicide and convinces him with the help of a taped conversation between Iwabuchi and Moriyama at Wada’s own funeral. Shirai loses his mind and goes to a mental hospital. Nishi even abducts Moriyama and forces him to give evidence against Iwabuchi by starving him. Kurosawa gives hope to the audience that in the end the corrupt officials will be punished and when you are convinced and relaxed that the film is coming to an expected conclusion, he shatters that hope. In the last ten minutes, the film turns upside down and you are left with hopelessness in your heart. Yes, Wada and Shirai are punished but they are very small fishes in the filthy pond of corruption, the real villains are left untouched.
Why did Kurosawa make it like that? Why this ending? Was his plan to just cash the shock factor of the climax? No, I don’t think so. The most important characteristic of this film is that all its characters are human with their respective goods and evils. The character sketch of every individual is drawn after a lot of research and every individual is a real human being here. No one is ideal or perfect or heroic, not even the protagonist Nishi. In fact, he is the most ambiguous character here. He hated his father when he was alive but wants to avenge his death. He plans to marry a lame girl with a purpose of becoming his father’s confidante but falls in love with her. He is brutal and merciless but at few instances, he shows his softer side too. In one of the scenes, he explains his position to his wife. He says that when his father was alive, hating him was his only obsession and after he died, revenge became his only obsession. This is perfectly human and this revenge is the axis of his survival. So he has to pursue it. Iwabuchi is a corrupt monster but a loving father. Wada and Shirai are corrupt because they are weak and so they have no choice in a corrupt system.
This is indeed a cinematic masterpiece from Kurosawa. Technically it is very sound and is a very stylized version of Kurosawa. Without diluting the cinematic brilliance, he is able to make his point. Toshiro Mifune is sublime as Nishi and gives various shades to his character. All other actors are excellent. Kurosawa has given everyone a perfect role except Takashi Shimura. I felt this role of Moriyama could not unleash his full potential but he is great as always.
Revenge itself is not a noble idea and the means which Nishi employs to get it are immoral, in fact, simply evil. So, in my opinion, he was bound to fail. As far as Iwabuchi is concerned, in the last scene, his daughter is in a vegetative state and his son takes her with him and abandons his father. On the phone, talking to his boss, Iwabuchi says that he did not sleep last night and now as all the matters have been resolved he is going to sleep. Only god knows whether he was able to sleep well or not! But I must admit, I was shocked in the climax and didn’t sleep well!