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Film Club: The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

The Bad Sleep WellThis May, our Film Club title of the month is Akira Kurosawa’s 1960 film The Bad Sleep Well (悪い奴ほどよく眠る, Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru, “The Worse They Are, The Better They Sleep”).

The Bad Sleep Well was the first film released by the newly formed Kurosawa Production Co., which had been founded in April 1959. As Toho had been concerned about rising production costs, they had suggested to Kurosawa that in order to continue making the kind of films that he wanted to make, he should set up a company to foot a part of the bill. Toho still continued to co-produce Kurosawa’s films and in fact also retained a majority stake in Kurosawa’s new company, but as the director was now putting some of his own money into the mix, Toho could sleep more soundly. On the other hand, at least in theory this also gave Kurosawa slightly more artistic freedom.

Considering that he was now risking some of his own finances, one could imagine Kurosawa deciding to capitalise on the financial success of his previous film, The Hidden Fortress, and making another light adventure film for the mass audiences. But instead, Kurosawa took the opposite road and embraced his increased artistic freedom to make his most directly political film since the 1955 Record of a Living Being.

Kurosawa had problematised the unchecked freedom of the press in Scandal in 1950 and turned to the issue of potential nuclear annihilation in Record of a Living Being, and The Bad Sleep Well is a film in many ways comparable to them. This time, the focus is on postwar Japanese corporate culture and the corruption within, as The Bad Sleep Well — sometimes called Kurosawa’s Hamlet — delivers a cinematic revenge play of a young man’s mission to climb the corporate ladder and avenge his father’s death.

Kurosawa’s critique of the status quo covertly extends also to Japan’s political decision makers, but only covertly, for even with the increased artistic freedom of his new production company, Kurosawa wasn’t able to push the point quite as far as he had originally wanted. Several compromises had to be made with the story, and even in its final slightly compromised form Toho was apparently hesitant to deal with the finished film, and did in fact not re-release it or allow television broadcasts until the late 1980s.

The compromises forced on the production may have affected the quality of the film, which is slightly uneven. The Bad Sleep Well begins with 25 minutes which are easily among the best 25 minutes that Kurosawa ever filmed. From there on, however, the rest of the film fails to live up to the opening’s brilliance. Yet, while the external pressure to tone down the film must have had an affect on the film’s coherence, it cannot be said to have been the only or even the primary reason for the film’s inability to quite reach its potential.

One could in fact rather look at the film’s writing process. While Kurosawa typically worked on his scripts with one or two co-writers, allowing multiple points of view, The Bad Sleep Well had no less than six individuals shaping its narrative. The basic story emerged from an original screenplay by Kurosawa’s own nephew Mike Inoue, who had never before had and would never later have his work filmed, but who would later end up co-producing Dreams and Rhapsody in August. Although Kurosawa kept the overall story of the original script, he decided to refine it, reworking it initially with Eijiro Hisaita, who had worked with Kurosawa on two of his early films, No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) and The Idiot (1951), and who would three years later also contribute to High and Low (1963). Later in the process, Kurosawa regulars Hideo Oguni, Ryuzo Kikushima and Shinobu Hashimoto would also join them. With this high number of contributors, it could be argued that some of the story’s focus was lost, resulting in the unevenness of the final product.

Yet, the resulting film is quite complex and has attracted fairly much discussion. Yoshimoto for instances discusses in length the film’s theatricality, calling it an “orchestrated spectacle”, and points out that unlike in many contemporary films by the Japanese New Wave, Kurosawa’s exploration of corporate corruption never reveals the detailed workings of the corruption, with the concept remaining more abstract and the narrative concentrating on the individual. Yoshimoto also talks about the film’s duplicitous meanings, arguing that almost everything in the film carries a double meaning, shifting between literal and figural interpretations.

Other writers have concentrated largely on the film’s message as a commentary on contemporary Japan, as well as its use of the revenge drama template. Our own previous discussions have asked why the bad in fact sleep well, in fact twice, and also whether the ending is botched. We have talked about capitalism and redemption in connection with the film, used the film as a starting point for comparing Kurosawa with Scorsese, and debated whether the film is Hamlet.

The Bad Sleep Well is available on DVD — for more information see Kurosawa DVDs. We will be pairing the film with Mikio Naruse’s When A Woman Ascends the Stairs, which will be our film in June. For more information, including information about the film’s availability, see our film club page.

So, what is your take on The Bad Sleep Well? A failed masterpiece, one of Kurosawa’s best, or something else?


Discussion

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Ugetsu

I’ve just watched it again – first time since we last discussed it here. Oddly enough, I enjoyed it more this time than previously, maybe because I was focusing more on what was going on in individual scenes, rather than following the plot. I did get very annoyed though by all the exposition in the film – I kept wishing someone had gone through the script and crossed out at least half the dialogue.

I still find it quite frustrating that what I think was a potentially great film fell short, but I still can’t quite put my finger on what it was that went wrong. In one sense I think it has too much plot for a drama, too much drama for a thriller. It lacks the leanness of a really good thriller like Stray Dog or High and Low, but for me the script is far too didactic to make a good intelligent drama. I found the characters too one dimensional to be really interesting.

I did realise for the first time what Yoshimoto meant in his essay that the film is so deliberately theatrical. I only just noticed how many deliberate references there are to stages and theatre, and I’ve become more convinced that it was indeed influenced by Hamlet, maybe to its detriment.

One thing that did strike me in the context of discussions we’ve had in the immediate post war films of Kurosawa was the specific western references in the film. In Drunken Angel and Stray Dog Kurosawa seemed to be making a connection between gangsterism and western, or more specifically American, music and clothes and architecture. In this film there seems a strong design focus on non-Japanese features. The main house is by far the most ‘western’ piece of architecture I can think of in a Kurosawa film – it seems to be a sort of English/Scots building, even down to the stained glass entrance hall, with just the private sleeping areas having any Japanese elements. Even the son’s hunting gear is English tweed. There is also, in Nishi’s garage scenes, an emphasis on the American origin of his Chrysler cars. I’m not sure what the relevance of this is, I’ll have a think on it, but it does seem to me to be significant. Something to do with the final victory of the allies as being a cultural one, not a military one? (in the context of Yoshimoto’s theory that the final scenes in the bombed out munitions factory represents the final destruction of an optimistic post war culture by war profiteers).

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Vili Maunula

Ugetsu: I did get very annoyed though by all the exposition in the film – I kept wishing someone had gone through the script and crossed out at least half the dialogue.

Is this only for the last third of the film, or for the whole? Watching it again today, I thought how impressively little narrative hand holding the film actually does until the main characters move to the shelter. After that, everyone is suddenly overcome with a need to tell their life story and just when the film should come to a climax, everything grinds to a halt.

It gets me every time. I watch the first half wondering why I don’t rank this film higher. Then, almost to the minute at the half way point (another example of Kurosawa’s punctuality with his narrative), Nishi explains what is really going on, and from there on it’s downhill, with the final scenes at the shelter dragging on and on.

That’s not to say that the first half doesn’t have problems as well. Apart from rewriting the last third, rather than cutting down the dialogue, I would have cut down some of the action. The Bad Sleep Well has, I think, the worst rhythm of any Kurosawa film. Scenes run too long and are surprisingly weakly linked to one another.

You may be right that there was too much content for a thriller, but I feel that with snappier editing, less all-over-the-place acting and a rewritten last act, The Bad Sleep Well would have been among Kurosawa’s best works. But, as you mentioned, it would have been a thriller, not a well rounded drama.

The Bad Sleep Well is one Kurosawa film that I hope some contemporary director would pick up and tackle for a remake.

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Ugetsu

Vili

Is this only for the last third of the film, or for the whole? Watching it again today, I thought how impressively little narrative hand holding the film actually does until the main characters move to the shelter. After that, everyone is suddenly overcome with a need to tell their life story and just when the film should come to a climax, everything grinds to a halt.

Yes, I do mean the later parts of the film. What I find odd is that the exposition gets worse as the film goes on, the opposite of the usual problem with a film overladen with too many speeches. I really don’t know why Kurosawa seems to have had so little faith in the story as told on screen. As you say, the narrative grinds to a halt every time one of the character starts telling their life story. I find it a really inexplicable misjudgement for such a great storyteller as Kurosawa.

The Bad Sleep Well has, I think, the worst rhythm of any Kurosawa film. Scenes run too long and are surprisingly weakly linked to one another.

I’d agree with that. There are many individually great scenes, but they never seem to knit together very well. I find it understand how the director who made films like Seven Samurai flow with such grace and economy could allow this film to have been so clunky in its structure.

The Bad Sleep Well is one Kurosawa film that I hope some contemporary director would pick up and tackle for a remake.

What I’d really love is for a really good editor, someone like Thelma Schoonmaker, to tear the film up (apart from the first act) and completely reconstruct it.

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Vili Maunula

Ugetsu: There are many individually great scenes, but they never seem to knit together very well.

This here I think is the key to why the film stumbles so badly. There are such highs that the low points seem very low. The Bad Sleep Well probably has the greatest number of iconic scenes of any Kurosawa film: the opening, especially with the cake wheeled in, Wada’s funeral, his later appearances as “a ghost”, the late night office scene, the ruins, and many many others. It is visually often absolutely brilliant and the story is very good as well, the whole just never quite comes together.

I’m not sure if it’s the setting and subject matter, but High and Low is in my view quite a similar film in its ambition, but there everything just works together so much better, making it one of Kurosawa’s best.

Ugetsu: What I’d really love is for a really good editor, someone like Thelma Schoonmaker, to tear the film up (apart from the first act) and completely reconstruct it.

I never thought of that, but that would be brilliant! I wonder if old films have ever been remade this way, without the participation of the director and original editor?

The only case I can think of right now is Alien 3, which was re-edited with added material for the box set release without director David Fincher’s participation. But then again, I think the studio didn’t actually let him do his own cut for the original release, either.

Now I really want someone to recut The Bad Sleep Well! Although, to be honest, if we did that, I think some of the acting should also be redone and toned down. Maybe CGI could do that?

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Ugetsu

Vili

I never thought of that, but that would be brilliant! I wonder if old films have ever been remade this way, without the participation of the director and original editor?

I can’t think of any examples, but of course there are lots of examples of the editing being taken out of the directors hands after the initial cut, but before its release. And of course lots of older films were often recut for TV for one reason or another (I remember my astonishment at seeing Beverly Hills Cop on DVD for the second time, the first time was a completely bowdlerised TV version!)

Now I really want someone to recut The Bad Sleep Well! Although, to be honest, if we did that, I think some of the acting should also be redone and toned down. Maybe CGI could do that?

And colourize it! Well, not really! But I think most of the overacting is in the expositions, so could easily be just cut out. I’m sure it would be possible to alter scenes through CGI. Didn’t they use CGI to put Oliver Reed in some scenes after he died during the making of Gladiator? I would have thought that with CGI it would be possible to essentially ‘reshoot’ scenes if necessary, with a different rhythm and camera position.

I’m sure purists would hate the idea of altering any old film like this, but I don’t in principle see any reason why not if there is clearly a problem which modern technology can cure. I’ve never been a great believer in the purity of the directors cut, there are more than enough examples where the director proved a poor judge of his own material (Apocalypse Now Redux being one example). Although of course Kurosawa was an outstanding editor usually.

It would though be a really interesting experiment, although I would have thought that it would be too intimidating for any but the most arrogant film maker to tackle a Kurosawa film in this way.

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Vili Maunula

Ugetsu: I’m sure purists would hate the idea of altering any old film like this, but I don’t in principle see any reason why not if there is clearly a problem which modern technology can cure.

Same here, although I wouldn’t call it “curing”, just changing, or giving a different interpretation of the material. We have the technology, but it seems there really isn’t the interest to pursue projects like this.

I might be the only one, but I quite liked the Apocalypse Now Redux cut. But then again, I wasn’t too bothered with George Lucas’s tinkering with Star Wars, either.

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BMWRider

Okay, I know I am late to the party, in fact I have shown up a few years late to the party, but now that I am a full time student I have some time to participate. I was not involved in the last discussions, so perhaps you have spoken to this before, and if so, I apologize. But these are my notes after watching the movie today.

I think the story of The Bad Sleep Well is indeed more relevant today than it ever has been. Kurosawa is quoted as saying he made the movie too soon, and there is truth to that. We have two forces in the movie that are struggling with one another, the force of corporatism as personified by the voice on the phone that speaks with Iwabuchi, though he is never seen, and the pure humanism that is portrayed by Nishi’s wife Yoshiko.

Yoshiko’s love is pure and makes those around her better, her brother Tatsuo is in all respects a ne’er do well, except in his treatment of her. Nishi is a man driven by vengeance, who loses his edge because of her purity of heart. Yoshiko points out that the principle antagonist in the film, Iwabuchi, is indeed a good and decent father to his two children. She sees the humanness in him as well and he is able to use that to his advantage.

On the other hand, the forces of corporatism are truly everywhere, crushing the spirit of men and destroying civilization. The initial scene at the wedding struck me, in it the press behaves without any sense of propriety or concern for the events of the day, hovering like vultures, waiting for the big scoop so the papers can make more money from scandal. The wedding serves as the introduction to the characters in our tragedy, and does so well. I found it engaging and unlike the wedding scene in The Deer Hunter, it is not too long or boring.

As the story progresses there is little hope. It was obvious to me that the forces of corporatism would win, regardless of Nishi’s actions. All that I had hope for is that Nishi would redeem himself before the inevitable end. I believe he did, but I suppose that too is debatable.

I wonder if Kurosawa is not truly commenting on his own situation, having been forced by a corporate entity to help finance his own films, he is no longer free to fully engage in his art, and must sell himself to work. His own humanism has been compromised by corporatism, and the forces of evil have prevailed.

I also wanted to point out that the final main stage, in the wreckage of the factory is poignant. The symbolism of corporatism being held accountable in the ashes of a war that was arguably driven initially by the same force is a statement that I picked up on. Is Kurosawa asking if Japan has forgotten her history?

More later as the film sinks in, I am not sure that I viewed it during my film crazed period in 2002/2003, so it at least feels new to me.

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Ugetsu

BMWRider

Yoshiko’s love is pure and makes those around her better, her brother Tatsuo is in all respects a ne’er do well, except in his treatment of her. Nishi is a man driven by vengeance, who loses his edge because of her purity of heart. Yoshiko points out that the principle antagonist in the film, Iwabuchi, is indeed a good and decent father to his two children. She sees the humanness in him as well and he is able to use that to his advantage.

This is a good point – the character of Yoshiko annoyed me a little – she is a little too pure and good to be all that believable, she lacks the ‘edge’ you would imagine a young woman would pick up growing up in that family (or indeed that would be needed to make her a more interesting character). But it may be that this is deliberate – she is more a symbol than a real character.

As the story progresses there is little hope. It was obvious to me that the forces of corporatism would win, regardless of Nishi’s actions. All that I had hope for is that Nishi would redeem himself before the inevitable end. I believe he did, but I suppose that too is debatable.

I suppose in the end he was partially redeemed, in that he realised how wrong he was to manipulate Yoshiko. But his very (partial) redemption led to his destruction and ultimate failure, so it is very much a mixed message if that is what Kurosawa intended to say. But then, the more I look into this film, the more ‘mixed’ the messages seem to be.

The symbolism of corporatism being held accountable in the ashes of a war that was arguably driven initially by the same force is a statement that I picked up on. Is Kurosawa asking if Japan has forgotten her history?

Yoshimoto has some interesting things to say about that. He suggests that the symbolism of the ruins of an old munitions factory would have been a very powerful one for the contemporary audience – he was saying that ultimately, the same people who profited from Japans militarism were the same who profited from its destruction, and those men were again profiting.

Okay, I know I am late to the party, in fact I have shown up a few years late to the party, but now that I am a full time student I have some time to participate.

Better late than never! Glad to have you here commenting.

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lawless

I finally got a chance to sit down and watch this movie yesterday. It’s certainly not flawless, but I liked it more than I expected to given prevailing wisdom about it.

As is not unusual, I’m a contrarian. Although the much-vaunted wedding scene has its high points, especially the closeup of Yoshiko’s halting progress, Tatsuo’s toast, and the wheeling in of the second wedding cake, I don’t see it as one of the best 25 minutes Kurosawa ever filmed.

In addition to being obvious and clunky, the use of the reporters as a sort of Greek chorus to introduce the characters, comment on the action, and provide exposition interfered with my ability to suspend disbelief. IRL Iwabuchi or one of his underlings would have called hotel security to eject the reporters from the banquet room, leaving them to cool their heels in the hallway or lobby outside. With the exception of the points I mention and some of the dialogue among the reporters, I also found the scene overlong and boring. It wasn’t until Nishi started becoming a protagonist rather than a living wedding cake topper that the movie really got underway.

I agree that the film sags a little once the action moves to the abandoned industrial site. It’s probably true that it loses focus somewhat because of the alternation of exposition and somewhat over-the-top action. I also think it’s because the site, while symbolic, has no real connection with the rest of the story, so it feels like the narrative’s been sidetracked instead of advancing.

To address some points Ugetsu raises: I think the feeling of incoherence has to do with the complexity of the underlying corruption, the number of people involved in it, and the dual focus on the corruption itself and its effect on the personal relationships that Nishi manipulates in order to obtain his revenge. As Ugestu says, the drama of the latter got in the way of the thriller aspects of the movie, even devolving into melodrama at some points, such as the confrontation between Tatsuo and Nishi. However, the strengths of the thriller aspects of this movie make me even more anxious to see High and Low.

On the other hand, this moral complexity is part of what I like about the movie. While many of the characters are one-dimensional, the plot isn’t, nor are those characters who are most central to the private/public dichotomy — Nishi, Iwabuchi, Yoshiko, and Tatsuo. And I’d like to think there’d be a way to rewrite or re-edit the movie to make it tighter without losing the dichotomy of Iwabuchi’s behavior with his family vs. his behavior at work and the effect of Nishi’s manipulation of his employer and his wife to achieve his goals, even though he winds up falling in love with his wife and would prefer not to hurt her.

Vili, which performances do you consider subpar? I liked them all and thought that those that were over the top (Wada, Shirai) were that way for artistic reasons. Also, what were the compromises that were made in making the film that you mention in the introduction? I was surprised at how hard-hitting the movie is and am hard-pressed to see how it was watered down.

I plan to watch the movie again now that I am familiar with the characters and their role in the corruption. I kept going back and forth as to the level of government involvement and whether Public Corp. was a quasi-governmental agency or company, a la the company that operated the Fukishima nuclear reactor, or was a purely private company a la Honda or Toyota. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts on that matter. In any case, there’s long been an overly cozy relationship between government and business in Japan.

As an aside, I find the frequently-made comparisons to Hamlet belabored. Yes, both depict a son fighting corruption to avenge his father’s death, but that’s pretty much where it ends. Calling this a remake or even something inspired by Hamlet is unhelpful and detracts attention from the work that’s actually before us.

Finally, there were many actors I knew but didn’t recognize. Most notably, until I reviewed the credits, I thought that Tatsuo was played by Tatsuya Nakadai. 😳 But I recognized Koji Mitsui, who played the gambler in The Lower Depths and played one of the reporters here, right away. Go figure.

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Ugetsu

Lawless

As is not unusual, I’m a contrarian.

We wouldn’t want it any other way 🙂

On the other hand, this moral complexity is part of what I like about the movie. While many of the characters are one-dimensional, the plot isn’t, nor are those characters who are most central to the private/public dichotomy — Nishi, Iwabuchi, Yoshiko, and Tatsuo.

That is a good point, I hadn’t thought of it that way. The moral issues are indeed very complex in the film, while the characters in general are not – most of them are I think really ciphers or stereotypes or just symbols. I think this is one of the problems I have with the film – the moral issues are complex and gripping, but its hard to empathise with the characters struggles with them, because the characters themselves are not all that interesting.

Also, what were the compromises that were made in making the film that you mention in the introduction? I was surprised at how hard-hitting the movie is and am hard-pressed to see how it was watered down.

I’m curious about this too – I thought the film was very hard hitting and if I hadn’t known that Kurosawa felt pressure to tone it down, I wouldn’t have guessed. I don’t think its necessarily a bad thing, as I would have thought that the film might have become too didactic if it was too ‘direct’. Sometimes indirect satire and commentary is much more effective than frontal assault.

As an aside, I find the frequently-made comparisons to Hamlet belabored. Yes, both depict a son fighting corruption to avenge his father’s death, but that’s pretty much where it ends. Calling this a remake or even something inspired by Hamlet is unhelpful and detracts attention from the work that’s actually before us.

I would have agreed with this on my first viewing. But the more I’ve seen the film and thought about it, the more I feel that the basic story of Hamlet was on the scriptwriters/Kurosawa’s minds – not necessarily to the benefit of the final film. I think there are a lot more direct parallels than you say – in particular the presence of an Ophelia character and other characters who I think are similar to Polonius and Horatio. I think the overall theme of a man pursuing righteous vengeance in a way which causes havoc to the evil and innocent equally is central to both stories.

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Vili Maunula

lawless: Vili, which performances do you consider subpar?

Mifune, Fujiwara (as Wada) and Nishimura (Shirai) are for me the worst offenders. I’m sure that they acted the way they did for (Kurosawa’s) artistic reasons, but it just doesn’t work for me. Mifune seems particularly uncomfortable in the role, out of rhythm, and perhaps miscast. And actually, his whistling is a particularly good metaphor for the whole film: it’s a brilliant idea for a character device, but it just never really works.

On the other hand, Mori’s performance as Iwabuchi is, I think, very good. Having just now seen him also in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, I am starting to be at a point where I need to look for some films just to see him more. He has been really good in just about everything that I have seen him in (although my opinion of his Idiot keeps fluctuating).

lawless: Also, what were the compromises that were made in making the film that you mention in the introduction?

This is a good question, and I haven’t actually found any concrete examples, apart from the final scene, which everyone keeps mentioning. But basically, it seems that Kurosawa had to tone down the film quite a bit. Here’s what he told Lillian Ross in 1981 (quoted in Interviews):

“When I submitted the original script, the producers disagreed with everything. I had to make cowardly compromises. I couldn’t show what I wanted to show — that the real and final source of the corruption was at the top. I had to settle for a faceless voice on the other end of a telephone line.” (115)

In the comments that Kurosawa gave to Richie (also in Interviews), Kurosawa recalls how already during the making of the film he realised that it would not be what he had planned: “even while making it, I knew it wasn’t working out as I had planned, and this was because I was simply not telling and showing enough. Like the final scene with Mori on the telephone. That suggests, but it is not explicit enough.” (18)

lawless: I kept going back and forth as to the level of government involvement and whether Public Corp. was a quasi-governmental agency or company

The company’s full name is 日本未利用土地開発公団, which I think would translate in full, word for word, as “Japan Unexploited Land Development Public Corporation”. I don’t know much about Japanese corporation types, but based on a superficial googling, it would appear that Public Corporations (公団) are a type of government owned businesses that have over the years managed things like telecommunications, public transport, urban development, roads, energy, natural resource use and also banking for government projects. They seem to have been particularly numerous in the 50s, 60s and 70s, but their number was brought down in the 1980s as, I suppose, they were unable to compete in efficiency with the private sector.

In any case, I think that whatever its legal status, it is implied that the company in The Bad Sleep Well has very close ties with the government circles. Although Kurosawa, it seems, would have wanted to explore that connection in more depth.

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Ugetsu

Just today Philip French (maybe one of Britains most esteemed film critics) nominated The Bad Sleep Well as one of his pick for 10 best modern reinterpretations of Shakespeare. He says:

Kurosawa’s samurai transcriptions of Macbeth (Throne of Blood) and King Lear (Ran) are classics. His modern version of Hamlet, a thriller its theme that something’s rotten in the state of Japan), is little known but far more significant than Aki Kaurismäki’s Hamlet Goes Business (1987) or Michael Almereyda’s Manhattan Hamlet (2000). The Bad Sleep Well subtly reworks Hamlet in modern Tokyo, where Kurosawa’s favourite actor, Toshiro Mifune, plays the son of a murdered tycoon who penetrates a crooked conglomerate to exact revenge on his father’s usurper. He marries his Ophelia-like daughter and engages with local stand-ins for Polonius and Laertes

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BMWRider

Interesting list, he also says “The greatest screen version of Lear is Ran.” He later implies that nothing else comes close.

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Vili Maunula

An interesting, albeit at times a little puzzling, list! The last one there, Coriolanus by Ralph Fiennes, is actually towards the top of my pile of unwatched films. I’ve been really looking forward to it.

Anyway, I still feel that labelling The Bad Sleep Well “Shakespearean” is dangerous, and not entirely fair to the film. I recently re-read Kaori Ashizu‘s essay Kurosawa’s Hamlet? (pdf), which I think quite well summarises the problems arising from linking the film too closely with Hamlet.

I also noticed that in the Interviews book edited by Cardullo, Peter Grilli’s 1985 New York Times article mentions that “The Bad Sleep Well (1960) has been called ‘a Japanese Hamlet in modern dress,’ although Mr. Kurosawa claims no such parallel to Shakespeare’s play. In the case of Ran, he does not deny the relationship to King Lear, but insists that it is secondary.” Grilli goes on to quote Kurosawa about the background to Ran, so I assume that he actually interviewed him. I then wonder if the “claims no such parallel to [Hamlet]” should be understood as an actual denial coming directly from Kurosawa.

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Ugetsu

Vili

I recently re-read Kaori Ashizu’s essay Kurosawa’s Hamlet? (pdf), which I think quite well summarises the problems arising from linking the film too closely with Hamlet.

Thanks for that link, that’s a really interesting and stimulating essay. Certainly one of the best things I’ve read on The Bad Sleep Well. Among other things, it makes it clear just how important it is to know exactly what is meant in the original Japanese, so much subtlety can be lost in translation.

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lawless

Vili: Mifune, Fujiwara (as Wada) and Nishimura (Shirai) are for me the worst offenders. I’m sure that they acted the way they did for (Kurosawa’s) artistic reasons, but it just doesn’t work for me. Mifune seems particularly uncomfortable in the role, out of rhythm, and perhaps miscast. And actually, his whistling is a particularly good metaphor for the whole film: it’s a brilliant idea for a character device, but it just never really works.

The broad, over-the-top nature of Fujiwara and Nishimura’s acting works for me here. Parts of The Bad Sleep Well shade over from thriller to horror and make me wish he’d tackled a straight-up horror movie storyline, or at least interested to see what he would have done with it.

As for Mifune, I’ve seen at least one other reference to a similar sense of dissatisfaction (albeit without any explanation as to why), so you’re certainly not alone. Although I can think of at least one instance in which I’d question his choices (I’d have expected a grin to break out after he bamboozles Shirai over the money), I found him very effective in the role, and there are some things — him nearly knocking Tatsuo out of the way to get to Yoshiko, the near-kiss — that I can’t imagine anyone doing as well as Mifune does. As for any sense of discomfort, it might be his way of conveying Nishi’s discomfort rather than the role sitting wrong on him. Or at least it makes sense to me that Nishi wouldn’t be entirely at ease pretending to be a dutiful husband and son-in-law, especially not after he develops feelings for Yoshiko.

I cannot, however, completely discount the effect of how imposing Mifune looks in a well-cut suit (his wardrobe here is so much higher quality than his wardrobe in Drunken Angel and Stray Dog) and glasses. 😀

The whistling does tend to stop the action cold, but its inclusion would make sense if the tune he’s whistling has some independent significance like the tune the mob boss in Drunken Angel plays on his guitar shortly after he’s released from prison. Anyone know what tune it is or anything else about it?

Vili: On the other hand, Mori’s performance as Iwabuchi is, I think, very good. Having just now seen him also in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, I am starting to be at a point where I need to look for some films just to see him more. He has been really good in just about everything that I have seen him in (although my opinion of his Idiot keeps fluctuating).

I agree. However, it’s Rashomon I have qualms about. His character is a cipher to me. I think he’s very effective in The Idiot, even though after awhile I wished he’d vary the way he used his hands. Then again, my problem with Rashomon may be with the character and not him.

Vili: I don’t know much about Japanese corporation types, but based on a superficial googling, it would appear that Public Corporations (公団) are a type of government owned businesses that have over the years managed things like telecommunications, public transport, urban development, roads, energy, natural resource use and also banking for government projects.

A rewatch of the movie confirms this as well. My guess is that Public Land Development Corporation, which I believe is the full name that shows up in the subtitles a couple or three times (once in dialog, once or twice in translating the sign on the building), is something along the lines of what in the US would be called an urban development corporation. (They’re defunct here too, but mostly because the focus of urban planning has changed from knocking buildings down and building from scratch to creative reuse.) This makes what Public Corp., its officers, and employees are doing even worse than if it were a private company. Instead of cheating its customers and shareholders to enrich a few, it’s cheating the taxpayers — i.e., the entire country — which turns this into a case of direct instead of indirect government corruption, assuming, as I do, that the person on the other end of Iwabuchi’s phone calls is a highly placed government official. It also makes the references to corporate corruption in analyses of the movie somewhat misleading.

This underlines the importance of context here. If we, who are fairly well-versed in Kurosawa’s oeuvre and in Japanese society (for Westerners, at least), have to puzzle this out, what might the average non-Japanese make of it? It would be helpful if the subtitles took on more of the burden of translating the cultural context even if it means going beyond the actual dialog and translating implicit concepts the home audience would already understand.

It does seem that the one clearly documented difference of opinion Kurosawa had with the powers that be was whether to identify the person on the other end of the line. I agree with those who think not doing so is the better choice artistically.

Ugetsu: But the more I’ve seen the film and thought about it, the more I feel that the basic story of Hamlet was on the scriptwriters/Kurosawa’s minds – not necessarily to the benefit of the final film. I think there are a lot more direct parallels than you say – in particular the presence of an Ophelia character and other characters who I think are similar to Polonius and Horatio. I think the overall theme of a man pursuing righteous vengeance in a way which causes havoc to the evil and innocent equally is central to both stories.

I read the earlier thread on the relationship between this movie and Hamlet after I’d written my earlier comment, and I see your point. But (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?) I still believe it’s a mistake to see the parallels between this movie and Hamlet as anything other than unconscious or coincidental. The concept for the movie was his nephew Inoue’s, not Kurosawa’s, so Kurosawa’s love of or knowledge of Shakespeare seems largely irrelevant. More importantly, engage in the following thought experiment: What if Shakespeare had not existed or had never written Hamlet? Would the movie have been different or not existed, or was it conceived independently? I strongly believe the movie would have existed anyway in the same form and that the echoes of Hamlet are not conscious but rather due to their shared origins in the trajectory of revenge tragedy.

In that regard, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kurosawa did refute the suggestion that Hamlet was a conscious influence on The Bad Sleep Well, although as Vili notes, in the absence of a direct quote, the words used are ambiguous.

I too find French’s list puzzling. I’m not sure what he means by “modern reinterpration;” I’d put Throne of Blood, which clearly is an adaptation as well as a reinterpretation in a different setting (or as fanfiction writers would say, an alternate universe), or Ran, which definitely parallels King Lear but which was not originally a conscious reinterpretation of it, above The Bad Sleep Well in any such list.

Now that Joss Whedon’s modern day version of Much Ado About Nothing is being released, I wonder if the list might change if French revisited it in a year. I have tickets to see Much Ado this Sunday; I’ll let you know what I think of it. Fair warning: I’m almost as big a Whedon fan as I am a Kurosawa fan, but Firefly didn’t appeal to me and I haven’t seen Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog, Serenity or The Avengers.

Thank you for the link to that essay, Vili It is indeed excellent.

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Ugetsu

Lawless

As for Mifune, I’ve seen at least one other reference to a similar sense of dissatisfaction (albeit without any explanation as to why), so you’re certainly not alone. Although I can think of at least one instance in which I’d question his choices (I’d have expected a grin to break out after he bamboozles Shirai over the money), I found him very effective in the role,

I don’t think there is something wrong with Mifune’s (or the others) performances as such (although as so often, I find the acting in Kurosawa’s films to be maybe at a higher register than I’d prefer), but I find something discordant about the character – I think its more a structural problem with the film than an issue of Mifunes performance. It just sometimes seems to me like he’s been acting in a different film than the others. Perhaps its the fact that he seems to be calm while holding in so much emotion, while around him there are lots of dull salarimen who are emoting uncharacteristically.

My guess is that Public Land Development Corporation, which I believe is the full name that shows up in the subtitles a couple or three times (once in dialog, once or twice in translating the sign on the building), is something along the lines of what in the US would be called an urban development corporation.

That is a good comparison I think. My only knowledge of this comes from more recent writing about the problems in modern Japan, but I think the essential issue at the time (and to a lesser extent still today) is that there is a deeply incestuous connection between the construction industry and the State in Japan. Perhaps the nearest comparison is with the ‘military industrial complex’ where private companies which depend on public contracts become so close to the relevant purchasing bodies that it becomes hard to tell them apart, and they act almost like a single body, conspiring against the taxpayer for their own benefits. My understanding of how it works is that the construction companies are, in theory, entirely private companies in competition with other companies for public contracts, but they are so close to the relevant Ministries and there is so much exchange of staff at a senior level, that it becomes something of a opaque organisation in its own right, entirely opaque in its decision making to outsiders.

More importantly, engage in the following thought experiment: What if Shakespeare had not existed or had never written Hamlet?

Its a good notion, and I think you are right – certainly, the first time I watched it (without having read anything about it), the Hamlet connection didn’t occur to me. I think the most relevant point of Kairu Ashizu’s essay is that the film is much better if you assume it has nothing to do with Shakespeare.

I too find French’s list puzzling. I’m not sure what he means by “modern reinterpration;” I’d put Throne of Blood, which clearly is an adaptation as well as a reinterpretation in a different setting (or as fanfiction writers would say, an alternate universe), or Ran, which definitely parallels King Lear but which was not originally a conscious reinterpretation of it, above The Bad Sleep Well in any such list.

I think the reason he chose it is that he is specifically looking at versions set in contemporary or near contemporary times – it is pretty clear I think that he considers Ran and Throne of Blood to be superior films. He may well have included this simply because he felt he could not ignore Kurosawa, even if his most famous films didn’t qualify as ‘contemporary’.

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Vili Maunula

lawless: As for Mifune, I’ve seen at least one other reference to a similar sense of dissatisfaction (albeit without any explanation as to why)

I think Mifune just isn’t a very good subtle actor. He is brilliant when the role calls for emotional or physical extremes, but as a scheming mastermind who mainly works from behind the scenes, he just comes across as very bland. For me, anyway.

I think Ugetsu is also right that the character could have been better written to fit the film.

Ugetsu: I think the reason [French] chose [his Shakespeare list as he did] is that he is specifically looking at versions set in contemporary or near contemporary times

Somehow I missed this “contemporary” qualification completely, or perhaps thought that it referred to when the films were made. Indeed, if only films set in contemporary times are allowed, the list is a little less bizarre. But it still misses many of my favourites. And I wonder what Forbidden Planet is doing there in that case.

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lawless

Ugetsu – If French was truly limiting his consideration to contemporary adaptations, then why did he mention other adaptations in his discussion? I found that confusing.

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Ugetsu

I haven’t seen it, but I see that French Director Claire Denis‘ new film Bastards is apparently influenced strongly by The Bad Sleep Well. In an interview she also name checks High and Low.

Claire Denis previously made one of my favourite French films, 35 Shots of Rum, which is part tribute to, and partly a remake of Ozu’s Late Spring.

I’m quite intrigued to see it, even though it hasn’t had particularly great reviews.

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Vili Maunula

Damn Claire Denis, making films faster than I manage to see them. I still have 35 Shots of Rum in my “to be watched” pile, having so far only managed to watch White Material from her, which I really liked.

Looks interesting, though!

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