The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
The denunciatory, somewhat torturous tone of The Bad Sleep Well may be explained in part by its unique place in Kurasowa’s career as the first feature he made through his own production company. Shooting The Hidden Fortress was so expensive and elaborate that he split from Toho; his reputation for expansive projects soon spread and even affected his choice of locales for The Bad Sleep Well. He was always notorious for being scrupulous, and as he embarked upon a more independent career he felt a responsibility to be socially relevant. After the fact, when corporate scandal rocked Japan, he would lament that he had been too timid in his exposé and released the film too early.
As such, it is not mere speculation to say that the movie tackles corruption in high places with a personal zeal. The hero is a young, auspicious secretary (Toshiro Mifune) whose motives in marrying the company president’s daughter are not what they seem. His sinister ambitions are rivaled in intensity only by the drama of the events they inspire as one-by-one the upper echelon of company executives are embroiled in a mysterious plot to indict them for their under-the-table dealings.
The film’s fixation on evil and the motives that animate it makes for a restrictive viewing experience, to say the least. By the end, there is so little hope for the fate of the protagonists that by relaxing even an inch, we are ourselves enmeshed in the crime of complacency charged by the title. No one is spared from disaster, and the oft-lamented anonymity retained by the true villains indeed skews the moral impact of the final sequences. The total oblivion of The Bad Sleep Well suffers in comparison with the troubled damnation of High and Low and the psychological turmoil of Record of a Living Being.
Neither does the movie as a whole stand up to its neighbors and peers in the Kurasowa oeuvre, sandwiched between The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo, and so it is considered one of his lesser works. Of course, relatively speaking, this ‘lesser’ does not mean much. The Shakespearean web of betrayal and revenge (many critics and scholars have noted the film’s resemblance to Hamlet, another story in which a son attempts to avenge his dead father) affords the director plenty of chances to twist the knife, as it were, with suggestive editing and bold sound design. Notable sequences, like the super-charged exposition, approach perfection in pace and mood.
There is something aside from Kurasowa’s typical technical brilliance, however, that makes the movie interesting. Woven through of many of his films, one finds an exploration of a behavior or a set of values that can often be summed up with one word — in Rashomon, it is “deception”; in Red Beard, “sacrifice”; in High and Low, “obligation”. In this vein of interpretation, The Bad Sleep Well is a reflection on “obedience”, whether to the authoritarian commands of a superior or to the personal dictates of revenge. As Mifune’s character struggles to uphold his principles and preserve his humanity, a question about the grounds of trust and the limits of duty emerges that transcends the film’s more didactic moments. — Dylan Nelson