This 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?