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The Bad Sleep Well: Fathers, sons and revenge

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    Ugetsu

    One thing I find curious about the plot of The Bad Sleep Well, noted in passing by both Richie and Yoshimoto, is that the entire elaborate revenge scenario created by Nishi is created by his desire for vengeance for a man who, from what we learn indirectly, is not someone who seems particularly deserving. The only thing we know about his father is that he was weak (he dumps his girlfriend and child to further his career) and corrupt – he was obviously a minor wheel (at least) in the corrupt circle Nishi seeks to crush. His only redeeming feature seems to have been that he did seem to continue to support his ex-girlfriend and son financially and sought belatedly to reconcile with his son. The one thing we don’t know (unless I’ve missed something) is why he was killed. Was he just seen as a weak link who needed to be gotten rid of like Wada, or did he have a crisis of conscience leading him to turn whistleblower? Or perhaps he was an active senior player in the corrupt circle who got too greedy and had to be taken out, like a rival gangster? Whichever interpretation, it doesn’t seem like he was a particularly impressive man. It seems Nishi’s obsession with revenge reflects more on his own personality and drives and his hatred of establishment corruption than any real love or respect for his father. In this perhaps, we see the shadow of Hamlet over the script.

    Iwabuchi, however, is someone we get to know. I’ve noted in our discussions of other films that I’ve always been impressed by the psychological realism of many of Kurosawa’s characters, especially his evil characters. Some, such as the Mantis in Red Beard, are recognisable as textbook sociopaths. In fact, in Red Beard Kurosawa goes to pains to have his character draw a distinction between individuals who act badly out of circumstance (but may have redeeming features); those who struggle to resist the lure of evil despite their personal circumstances (the classic Kurosawa anti-hero); and those who do seem to act out of malevolence and evil. We see these three types of bad character throughout his films. Iwabuchi, however, seems a particularly complex individual – in his ‘official’ persona, he is purely psychopathic. He is a consummate and conscience-free liar (to the journalists, shamelessly milking sympathy at the end for his ‘loss’), a lickspitting underling to his boss, and a domineering, ruthless killer when it comes to his subordinates. And yet, his behaviour to his children seems more than just the acts of a sentimental man. He seems genuinely caring and gentle to his daughter, but also, perhaps more significantly, to his playboy son. He seems to have some sort of guilt – he knows his son sees through him, so doesn’t condemn his playboy act. Father and son seem to have reached a sort of truce – both understand the other, so can’t condemn each other too much. The mother is unseen – we can assume he is a widower? Perhaps this is one explanation for why he is so close to his children.

    So we can see this film is more complex than a simple revenge story. A son seeks revenge for a father who probably doesn’t deserve this, while the object of his hatred certainly deserves to be destroyed professionally – but arguably does not deserve to have his family destroyed. Richie and Yoshimoto seem to suggest that this is more than just a plot twist – it is to demonstrate the lack of logic behind Nishi’s thinking and to signal to the audience that this is not a simple good guy v bad guy story. Nishi is as self obsessed as Hamlet, but has also confused his justified political anger against corruption with personal issues – and when he lets another personal issue (his love for his wife) interfere, it all starts to fall apart.

    In some ways, I find the complexity of this circle to be a distraction to the overall narrative. At least one interpretation you can make of the ending is that the murder of Nishi might actually lead to some good – it nipped the cycle of revenge in the bud. Kurosawa clearly wished to add multiple layers of ambiguity to an otherwise conventional revenge story. But I’m struggling to see what he was trying to say in providing us with so much evidence of the probable worthlessness of Nishi’s father – and the apparent good side of Iwabuchi – although of course this was itself muddied by his ruthless manipulation of his daughter to track Nishi down and his turning his back on his children at the very end.

    I’m a bit at a loss to know exactly why the script has so many contradictory elements. Is it perhaps the ghost of Hamlet over the original structure, perhaps having too great an influence on the overall plot? Was Kurosawa trying to challenge the audiences preconceptions? Was he trying to say that the personal and political must always be kept separate?

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    BMWRider

    I have studied the complexities of father/son relationships for some time. As an educator I have always been interested regarding the impacts of a lack of a father figure on young men who grow up in single parent households. I will also admit to having an aversion regarding Shakespeare, so I have read Hamlet one time and am not qualified to comment too much regarding it. I did reread the story’s synopsis when I began watching Sons of Anarchy, as it was described as a modern retelling of Hamlet.

    I think that Nishi is not really motivated to avenge his father’s death because of the man he was, but because of the relationship he feels they could have had. There are two compelling pieces that made me feel this way. One is when Nishi recounts his father coming to him before his eventual suicide, Nishi emotionally explains that his father truly loved him. The other part of the puzzle is that Nishi explains that his father left him (and his mother) to marry a woman the company had picked for him, one who would get him ahead. Taking his words at face value, in the dynamics of a father/son relationship who does the son blame?

    Every boy wants to believe his father is a heroic figure. It is the realization that our father is not perfect, that leads to teenage rebellion and adolescent angst. Nishi is deprived of this expression of rebellion, because corporatism “took it” from him. So instead of seeing his father for the man he is, he sees a man who was compelled by the forces of corporatism to betray his young family. His lashing out is not aimed at his father, but at the corporate forces who made him the man he is. So while he says he is avenging his father’s death, I believe he is really avenging the theft of his idyllic childhood.

    There is a deeper component in all of this, and I want to throw it out there, as half baked as the idea may be. I apologize if this does not make sense, but please bear with me. In my study of Japan, I realized it was a much more structured society than western cultures. When I taught history, I used to explain to my students that Japanese lived in an organized, cultural climate when westerners lived in caves (a slight exaggeration I know). So there is certainly a paternal element that underlies the social contract, and heightens the impacts of government on day to day life. Is Nishi a symbol of Japanese society? When an emerging Japan took its rightful place in the western world, it had attained the international recognition it yearned for but by doing so it betrayed the samurai culture that had maintained civilization for several millennia. Like Nishi’s father, Japan abandoned his child for the allure of financial succes and a role in the global economy. Japan then committed suicide by engaging in a war that it could not win, one it was driven to by the corporate forces both in Japan and in the United States. Nishi is Japan, he still loves his father (Japanese culture and society) but wants revenge for his poor decisions. Who can he blame but the corporate forces that led him down the wrong path?

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    Ugetsu

    BMWRider – you make some excellent points there about Nishi’s motivation – I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but I think you are on the right track.

    There is a deeper component in all of this, and I want to throw it out there, as half baked as the idea may be. I apologize if this does not make sense, but please bear with me. In my study of Japan, I realized it was a much more structured society than western cultures…..Japan then committed suicide by engaging in a war that it could not win, one it was driven to by the corporate forces both in Japan and in the United States. Nishi is Japan, he still loves his father (Japanese culture and society) but wants revenge for his poor decisions. Who can he blame but the corporate forces that led him down the wrong path?

    I’m normally a bit allergic to allegorical interpretations of Kurosawa films, but I’m really interested in your theory, it does have a ring of truth to it.

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    Vili Maunula

    Really interesting thoughts, guys.

    I definitely look at the revenge story in the same way as BMWRider. I too feel that Nishi’s motivation for revenge is more influenced by his lost childhood than being directly about his father’s suicide.

    I would still downplay the Hamlet influence, or at least wouldn’t jump through it into conclusions about why the finished work is a little confused and weaker than what we typically expect from Kurosawa. We must also remember that the original story was not Kurosawa’s, but his nephew’s. It would be interesting to read the first draft to see what changed.

    I, too, have some trouble stomaching allegorical interpretations, but the one you put forward, BMWRider, is quite interesting. Nishi’s personal story of how he created his fortune from the ashes of the war would seem to work well in that interpretation.

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    BMWRider

    Allegory is certainly not my forte, and I find a lot of it empty, but the Kurosawa family’s background seems to creep into a lot of what AK did. Oftentimes I think people stretch for meaning. But in this case, I think it works. Maybe I am reading too much into it.

    We can dismiss some of the AK canon as weak for reasons beyond Kurosawa’s control (The Idiot in particular), but I think The Bad Sleep Well struggles because he was trying to say too much. I thought it very interesting that the final scene is Iwabuchi explaining that he had not slept the night before, are we to understand that he is not completely “bad?”

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    Vili Maunula

    BMWRider: I thought it very interesting that the final scene is Iwabuchi explaining that he had not slept the night before, are we to understand that he is not completely “bad?”

    This feels like typical Kurosawa, doesn’t it, ending the film with a question mark, rather than a full stop. Indeed, who in the end are the “bad” people in the film — or rather, who aren’t? And in what way would Nishi’s revenge, even if successful, really accomplish anything positive?

    Also, what is the connection of the film’s title to Kurosawa’s previous film, the literal title of which is “Three bad men of the hidden fortress”? There again we are left wondering about the meaning of the word “bad”.

    And if we look forward, the line between “good” and “bad” will again be fairly boldly blurred in Yojimbo.

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    lawless

    Like Vili, I think the Hamlet connection has been and is oversold, but I’ll confine my analysis of why to the main thread on this movie rather than this one. While I agree with BMWRider’s analysis of Nishi’s reason for wanting revenge, I’d like to offer some additional ones:

    -Nishi might have reluctantly accepted the need for his father to abandon his family and marry someone else because getting ahead conceivably benefited Nishi and his mother too, as his father would have greater resources to share with them. (Whether he did so or not is another matter and something we don’t know about one way or the other.) But when his father commits suicide, he realizes that this sacrifice was an empty one made in the service of an evil entity.

    -Nishi might have been the kind of person who cares more about justice and less about loyalty even before this happened.

    -I think Nishi is also acting out of guilt and a sense of repayment (“I’ll do something for my father’s memory that my father was unable to”) because he missed seeing his father before his death, hearing his apology in person, and thus reconciling their relationship. It’s not just that the evil corporation has made his father commit suicide to cover up its crimes; it’s that the evil corporation and his own circumstances stood in the way of a final rapprochement between father and son.

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