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The Bad Sleep Well: Is the ending botched?

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    Ugetsu

    I was hoping to write something a little more intelligent on this topic, but I haven’t had the time this August so I’ll really just throw this out to see if anyone has any comment.

    I’ve been puzzled as to why I (along with, I see most of you) don’t really like this film as much as his other contemporary thrillers despite the amazingly good first act. At first I put it down to my mistake at reading too much about the film before actually watching it so I didn’t get the full emotional impact of the ending.

    But on reflection I do think that this is the only example I can think of where Kurosawa actualy botched the ending of a film. It seems far too drawn out and melodromatic. In particular, his ‘partners’ breakdown and weeping, along with his pedantic description of what happened to our hero seems far too overblown and out of character and simply goes on far too long. And most of all, we are simply told too much – what I love about so many of his endings (Stray Dog, High and Low, I Live in Fear, etc) is that he gave us a satisfactory ‘solution’ to the story, while also leaving us with a puzzle, or a metaphor to decipher. The final scene, with the phone conversation with the unseen ‘boss’ is powerful, but for me doesn’t make up for the what went on before.

    When I see endings in films that don’t work for me, I usually attribute it to the screenwriter/director not really knowing where they are going with a story (an all too common problem in modern film making, in my opinion). But Kurosawa seemed to have firm ideas in mind about this film. Is it simply misjudged and in need of a stronger hand in the editing suite? Or is this another case of Kurosawa falling into a philosophical tangle of his own making, whereby his optimistic himanism falls over the shoelaces of his pessimism over the direction of Japanese postwar society?

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    Vili Maunula

    You pose a very good question here, Ugetsu.

    I would start my answer by noting that in my view Kurosawa’s first acts tend to be better than his corresponding last acts. This may be because his films are often more concerned with pointing out problems than resolving them, which is obviously understandable considering the scope and complexity of the issues that they address. Based on my reading, Kurosawa also appeared to have the tendency to write and even film his works in a predominantly sequential order, and I have sometimes wondered if he simply grew physically tired towards the end of both processes, resulting in endings that are not quite as sharp as are the beginnings.

    But I do think that the ending of The Bad Sleep Well is still inherently quite weak. I can understand Nishi’s death, but I fully agree with Ugetsu that his friend’s breakdown doesn’t quite work. My feeling is that the scene tries to hammer home the idea that all is now lost, and that for one reason or another neither Itakura, Keiko or Tatsuo have the needed evidence to go to the authorities and expose the corruption. But I don’t quite buy it — certainly these people know enough, and while Keiko or Tatsuo might not want to expose their father, I don’t quite see why Itakura cannot do it. There are also other questions left unanswered, most importantly why exactly was it that Nishi was so preoccupied with the idea that the events leading to his father’s death had to be re-staged so that the media could investigate? Why try to push out a man from the window that your father jumped from when you could just hand the information that you have collected to either the papers or the law enforcement?

    Furthermore, the story of a personal vendetta doesn’t really work with the overall theme of the film (corruption), not least because Nishi’s motive for revenge is quite weak. It was, after all, the father himself who chose to follow the company’s recommendation and marry a woman other than Nishi’s mother, and it was again the father (or so we are told) who chose to commit suicide when told so by the company. Obviously, the pressure the system puts on its servants to make these decisions is huge, but the problem still really isn’t the people who are pulling the strings, but actually the system which not only allows but expects this sort of things to happen, as well as the people who bow under its pressure. My feeling is that what Nishi, perhaps without realising it, is really avenging is not his father’s death but the pain that the company has indirectly caused him.

    Also, you basically have two threads running through the film: the personal revenge story, which ends unfulfilled, and the impersonal exposition of corruption, which also ends without a solution. I feel that it would have been better to have one, namely the revenge story, play out successfully, so that the audience could feel that there is at least some closure to the story.

    A third (or fourth? I lost count) point is that the film lacks a real central character or angle through which the events unfold. At the beginning, the story is narrated through the reporters, but once the first act is over, we barely hear about them again. In their place, we get various points of view, sometimes following the story with Nishi, at other times focusing on the corrupted side. As a result, identifying with any of the characters or sides is difficult, and the end result is a film that delivers a potentially interesting story but very little emotion that we can associate with. Consequently, when Nishi dies we don’t really grieve with his friend as we don’t really care. And why should we? Nishi himself isn’t sure if he has not turned into a rather unlikeable character.

    We talked that this type of narration is similar to what someone like Martin Scorsese often does, but I think that the difference is that in Scorsese’s films you still always have a central character in one way or another. I feel that The Bad Sleep Well lacks any.

    So, to sum it up, my answer to the question why the ending falls apart is: 1) I don’t see why it has to be the end — why Nishi’s death makes it impossible for the other characters involved to expose the corruption, 2) I don’t see why I should care about Nishi’s death, and 3) too little is resolved, too little has been exposed, and too little has changed since the beginning.

    Having said all this, let me present an alternative version of The Bad Sleep Well, courtesy of Vili Production(s) Ltd.:

    I would first and foremost try to bring forward a more central character who the audience could relate to. Nishi’s friend Itakura would seem like the most obvious candidate for that role.

    What I would do is I would keep the first act with the reporters intact, and follow it with newspaper headlines, pretty much like the film now does. However, the headlines would go further than they currently do and would basically narrate the core of the story to come, including all the arrests and the results of Nishi’s actions as seen through the media (who still really know nothing). The headlines would end with Nishi’s own death, therefore taking us all the way to the end of the main story (while not revealing too much).

    After this, the main part of the film would begin. The most prominent journalist (who throughout Kurosawa’s film asks the right questions, even if he doesn’t quite go far enough) would in my version be contacted with Itakura, who would tell the journalist that there is more to Nishi’s death than what has been publicly acknowledged. What would then follow is the story pretty much as it is in the film, but told more from the point of view of Itakura. I would play up the moral dilemma Nishi faces as he gradually falls in love with Keiko, which is not difficult to do as Itakura was there to observe Nishi’s pain. I would also concentrate a little more on his questioning of his own motives, as all this should bring Nishi closer to us and make him more human and less of an idea.

    We would therefore have three layers of narration with three narrators, namely 1) the reporter listening to 2) Itakura’s narration of 3) Nishi’s story. Itakura would not be a totally reliable narrator, not having been with Nishi at all times and therefore at times having to be content with what Nishi told him, but together with the reporter the two could could pretty much put the missing pieces together.

    By the time he would get to the end of the story (Nishi’s death), Itakura would have the journalist convinced that there is a story that needs to be told. What would follow is a brief new sequence (not necessarily very long) in which the journalist (perhaps with Itakura) come forward go and expose Iwabuchi and his aides. Nishi would finally get his revenge, albeit posthumously, and prison sentences would be served. Although Keiko and the others around Nishi would remain grief-stricken, in terms of the revenge plot all would seem to end rather well, until…

    My version would end with a scene pretty much identical to the one we have in Kurosawa’s film, where Iwabuchi is speaking on the phone with the main boss. But instead of the (jailed) Iwabuchi, you would have someone who has been promoted to his place — maybe a former underling — take the phone call. Whatever words would be exchanged in this scene, the message to the audience would be that although the revenge was served, the real problem, corruption, goes way higher in the bureaucracy and hasn’t even been touched.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili, thats a fantastic analysis – and I have to say that your version would work extremely well!

    Two thoughts come to mind.

    I know the first one Vili won’t agree with me – I think that Kurosawa had the structure and theme of Hamlet in mind and that in some ways this interfered with the other story – the political thriller. It seemed to me watching it that there were two films going on, rather than interlocking stories. One was interesting and compelling – the story launched by the first act, with its interlocking characters and complex plot. The second one was the ‘Hamlet’ film – the tortured hero, who does appalling things in seeking justice. But rather than enriching each other as is usual with Kurosawas films, for me the two just got in each others way.

    My second (related) thought is that Mifunes character was all wrong. I never was interested in him and wasn’t particularly bothered that he died. I could never understand why he was so passionate about getting vengeance he hardly knew, while inflicting appalling damage on an innocent young woman. His agonising over this seemed very unconvincing. To me, he was neither a good man with a flaw, nor a bad man pursuing a good cause – he was simply a psychologically disturbed muddle. I actually found almost all the other characters more interesting than him – not something I’d usually say about a film with Mufune in it.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili:

    would start my answer by noting that in my view Kurosawa’s first acts tend to be better than his corresponding last acts. This may be because his films are often more concerned with pointing out problems than resolving them, which is obviously understandable considering the scope and complexity of the issues that they address. Based on my reading, Kurosawa also appeared to have the tendency to write and even film his works in a predominantly sequential order, and I have sometimes wondered if he simply grew physically tired towards the end of both processes, resulting in endings that are not quite as sharp as are the beginnings.

    I know you’ve said this before, and I find it interesting as its almost the complete opposite to my feelings on his films! I first started investigating old films ‘seriously’ because I became so disappointed with the modern films I was seeing. I felt that there were too many overeducated film makers with very little to say. For me, the crucial test is always the ending – I feel that a satisfactory ending to a film indicates that the filmmaker(s) had a clear story they wanted to tell. Without one, I simply feel that whatever the quality that went before, they were simply playing around with some cool ideas – one way is to say that there are lots of great directors of scenarios and vignettes out there, but not many who have real stories to tell. I loved the fact that an earlier generation really knew how to tell a great story in 90 minutes. I think I mentioned it before, but it was the ending of Stray Dog that first made me think ‘Kurosawa is a genius’. I feel the same way about the ending of Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Ikiru, High and Low, Ran and Madadayo (in fact, I feel the end of Madadayo made what was otherwise for me a disappointing film).

    But I do accept that in some of his films there are weaknesses at the end, although I’ve always thought there was a specific reason for this – we know the history of I live in Fear, for example, and I think we can assume that the endings of his earlier films weren’t always under his control.

    One one point though – I may be wrong about this, but didn’t Kurosawa say that the structural idea for the last act of Ikiru was his screenwriters, and he had to be talked into it? So perhaps in some respects we should be giving both a wider credit (and blame) for the structure of his films. There may be other reasons for particular decisions – he may quite simply have accepted the judgement of his co-writers, without agreeing with them (didn’t he write that this is one reason he admired his mentor, that he was willing to sacrifice a scene in order to encourage an assistant?).

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ugetsu said:

    “I know the first one Vili won’t agree with me – I think that Kurosawa had the structure and theme of Hamlet in mind and that in some ways this interfered with the other story – the political thriller. It seemed to me watching it that there were two films going on, rather than interlocking stories. One was interesting and compelling – the story launched by the first act, with its interlocking characters and complex plot. The second one was the ‘Hamlet’ film – the tortured hero, who does appalling things in seeking justice. But rather than enriching each other as is usual with Kurosawas films, for me the two just got in each others way.”

    You know, your acknowledgement of the film’s failure to integrate Hamlet and the corrupiton thread makes me much more likely to believe that Kurosawa may have been thinking along those lines!

    Vili suggested a really exciting and itneresting alternate story line for the film. Compelling, Vili!

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: One one point though – I may be wrong about this, but didn’t Kurosawa say that the structural idea for the last act of Ikiru was his screenwriters, and he had to be talked into it? So perhaps in some respects we should be giving both a wider credit (and blame) for the structure of his films. There may be other reasons for particular decisions – he may quite simply have accepted the judgement of his co-writers, without agreeing with them (didn’t he write that this is one reason he admired his mentor, that he was willing to sacrifice a scene in order to encourage an assistant?).

    Somehow I don’t see Kurosawa accepting anything that he wouldn’t agree with, but I still think that you are absolutely right that more credit should be given to his co-writers, as well as to the numerous other individuals who helped to create these works. We tend to think of movies as one man’s projects (damn auteur theory), and Kurosawa certainly fits the bill there, but even then the crew and the actors should not be forgotten. I would actually go as far as to say that without people like Teruyo Nogami or Yoshiro Muraki (production designer for around 20 of Kurosawa’s films) we would most probably have quite different looking films.

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