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The Bad Sleep Well: Theatre, Architecture and Design

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    Ugetsu

    Yoshimoto notes that the operative mode of narration in The Bad Sleep Well is not realism. From the first scene the film has an acute sense of theatricality – noted explicitly by the chief journalist who describes the wedding as the ‘the first act of a play’. We are only shown the interior of the hotel, and it is carefully designed as a theatre stage – the boundary between the reception and the waiting area (described by Yoshimo as a frame or proscenium arch separating the journalists and police from the invited guests), acting as a separation of stage and auditorium. This sets the stage, so to speak, for a film where enormous care has been devoted not just to the aesthetics, but to the overt and covert signifiers of architecture and design.

    Apart from the theatre-like hotel, the film has four main sets:

    The first is Iwabuchi’s home. What is most striking about this house is just how un-Japanese it is. I know of course that for much of the 20th Century a lot of rich Japanese aspired to ‘classic’ western architecture, and Japan is littered with some amazing copies or reinterpretations of western houses – but if I’m not mistaken this is by far the most unambiguously western house in any Kurosawa film (with the possible exception of the houses in The Idiot, which I assume were deliberately intended to reflect the Russian background to the film). Like the hotel, we are never shown the house in its entirely, but we do see a part of the outside at the hallway, where its clear that it is ‘genuine’ down to the red brick frontage and the stained glass around the timber doorway. The interior is vaguely Scottish manorial, and indeed after his duck shoot Tatsuo shows up in perfect Scottish tweeds, deerstalker hat and all. Iwabuchi himself has a private upstairs office which looks a perfect replica of an English gentleman’s private study. In fact, the only evidence we have of its Japanese setting are the private sleeping quarters, with their futon type beds and paper screens. One thing that does seem clear is that it is an older building – the home of establishment (or at least, Meiji period) wealth, not the nouveau riche.

    Nishi and Itakura have their own quarters – as Yoshimoto points out, it is the only building in the film where we are given an external establishing shot. The building itself seems the typical cramped Japanese commercial building at the time, with living quarters shoved in with retail space, but one thing I find curious about it is the emphasis on American cars. We are shown Itakura carefully discussing with a customer the distinction between a Chrysler New Yorker and (I think) the Town and Country. While I know at this time the Japanese car industry hadn’t quite become pre-eminent I can’t help wondering if it is significant that they sold big luxury American cars – presumably to aspirational wealthy Japanese who perhaps looked down a little on the domestic product.

    The third building we see both externally, internally and as a rather delicious looking architecture model. It is the HQ building from which Nishi’s father was killed. It seems to represent a superior form of office space – not the cramped sweaty offices we’ve seen in films like Ikiru, but modern, spacious, bland and orderly. It is a design favoured by big corporations to both intimidate and impress by its aggressive formalism.

    The fourth key setting is a ruin – if I’m not mistaken the external shots were at a real wartime ruin. The interior is I think a hugely impressive piece of set design, so much so that I was wondering if it was actually a set, it looked very real. I assume the building was some sort of weapons store or air raid shelter. As Yoshimoto points out, this setting is very significant – in this we see the old Japan, one created and destroyed by exactly the corrupt elements in Japanese society who Kurosawa saw as having triumphed over the hopes of the post war generation. For Nishi to be tortured and killed in an old munitions factory is the ultimate irony, and the ultimate death of a more hopeful Japan.

    I find a number of things curious about the set designs here. First of all, there is an absence of what might be considered ‘traditional’ Japanese designs – either the sort of gloomy older houses we were shown in Ikiru, or the smarter but flimsy modern pre-fabs of One Wonderful Sunday, or indeed of any other kind. Only the garage seems ‘typical’, and that is dedicated to that peak of American design, the 1950’s saloon car. The ‘bad’ guys either reside in overtly European (or British) houses, or in aggressively bland offices. There is none of the more civilized modern minimalism of a later film like High and Low.

    In previous contemporary films such as Stray Dog and Drunken Angel we’ve seen that Kurosawa favoured overt Western – or to be more precise – American signifiers for those characters who are seen as ‘bad’ or at least those we shouldn’t approve. The ‘good’ guys are the ones who usually favour a more modest Japanese context of simple homes and Japanese clothing at home. But this film seems more complex. The ‘American’ signifiers go with the younger men who are trying to defeat evil (even if they are deeply flawed individuals). The bad guys seem to be associated with an older form of respect/subservience to Western culture. The most overtly Japanese building is the purely functional reinforced air raid shelter – if nothing else, a reminder if one was needed of the ashes of war.

    So what are we to make of these design choices? I don’t have any conclusions myself, but I can’t help feeling that Kurosawa was deliberately trying to move away from his earlier most simplistic Japanese/Western duality in the post war years. For one, this film is, like Seven Samurai and Record of a Living Being, concerned only with Japanese society and is beyond blaming anything on western influence or the Occupation (while both acknowledging the unavoidable presence and influence of both). At the beginning of the film we see an almost perfect mix of Japanese and Western in the wedding ceremony – the Japanese bride in traditional costume walking (or limping) in time to the Bridal Chorus. But later we see the evil establishment in an almost context free environment – homes and offices which aggressively reject any context but power and bland good taste. They are neither ‘modern’ or ‘traditional’ – they are as meaning-free as the fake Tudor front on a MacMansion. The car sales office at least has some aspiration and some appreciation of the future and optimism in its glowing photographs of its steel, chrome and glass cars. Everything else is ashes and ruins.

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    Vili Maunula

    Thanks for the interesting topic and an excellent summary of the main locations, Ugetsu!

    The contrast between the wartime shelter and the rest of the major settings is indeed quite interesting. I am not sure if the bomb shelter is meant to signify old Japan, but it certainly does stand for wartime Japan. To me it seems like the film is making the point that although the military conflict has ended a long time ago, the typical Japanese person still either lives without knowing what is going on, keeps his eyes shut, or ends up having to hide underground in fear of his life.

    The Allies may have come and taken over Japan militarily, politically and culturally, but the real original enemy is still alive and well in Japan’s corrupted upper classes.

    While watching the film with your post in mind, I came to consider another architectural signifier to the ones that you mentioned. I think that if we compare the home settings with the public offices and hotel spaces, an argument could be made that the homes are deliberately made warm and welcoming, whereas the office spaces are cold and functional. Obviously, this is how buildings are actually designed, but scenes like the one where the Iwabuchis are roasting dinner very much seem to underline the cosiness of the home environment.

    This, I think, is connected to the film’s central theme which juxtaposes one’s public duty with the importance of family. Nishi is almost ready to give up his duty for justice (which itself has to do with family) for Yoshiko. In contrast, Iwabuchi’s loyalties lie first and foremost towards his duties as the Vice President, as most clearly illustrated by the final scene where, when facing the choice between following Yoshiko and her brother (whom he may never see again) and answering the company phone, he chooses the latter.

    The other “good” characters in the film are similarly tied to their families. Yoshiko’s brother would do anything for her. Wada grieves for the pain that his faked death causes his family. Itakura expresses anger for the fact that with Nishi’s death he can never take back his family name.

    While none of these cases are underlined by specific architectural choices, I would say that overall, the film’s location design is meant to express this dichotomy between family and public duty.

    Then again, it could also be that I’m simply too influenced by having recently seen Robert Redford’s latest, the rather good (as always with Redford) The Company You Keep, which threads similar paths. Although it does not do so architecturally.

    PS. The western architectural style seen in The Idiot is, or so I have understood, an actual representation of how houses in Hokkaido are really built.

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    BMWRider

    I saw your post here after I posted in the other forum and am glad to see that you noticed some of the same elements I have. The scene with the car order (it was an Imperial btw) reminded me of many emerging economies where a large American car is considered a status symbol. I saw it when I traveled and was struck by it, especially since I always wanted a European or Japanese luxury vehicle. I too noted the sets, the red brick and stained glass caught my eye, as did the hibachi scene conducted on a typical 1950s American patio.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    Obviously, this is how buildings are actually designed, but scenes like the one where the Iwabuchis are roasting dinner very much seem to underline the cosiness of the home environment.

    I had mixed feelings about that scene – the family seemed very close, and it seemed comfortable, but I felt the rooms and the building itself seemed cold and unpleasant – but this perhaps more reflects my own taste in architecture and design from what was intended. I was wondering when watching it whether the very English architecture was intended to emphasise the falseness and theatricality of the apparently ‘cosy’ home. Of course, the contemporary audience, many of whom would have lived in tiny, cramped houses, would perhaps have felt very differently watching this family enjoy so much room and luxury.

    BMWRider

    The scene with the car order (it was an Imperial btw) reminded me of many emerging economies where a large American car is considered a status symbol.

    Yes, I was wondering about that – even today I guess a foreign car has a certain status in Japan, but I’d assumed American cars at the time were just too big and ungainly for tiny Japanese streets. I’ve no idea what the dominant models were in Japan at the time (wikipedia informs me that Fords and Chryslers were actually manufactured in Japan pre-war, but not apparently post-war). Again, Wikipedia seems to infer that the massive expansion in car ownership in Japan was post-1960, so I suppose at the time of the film owning a private car was very much the preserve of the wealthy. I would imagine, given Kurosawa’s concerns, the notion of buying and selling American cars at the time would have a slight hint of corruption, so perhaps he was subtly hinting that Nishi himself wasn’t ‘pure’ in that sense – his business would have involved profiting indirectly from dirty money.

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    BMWRider

    I suppose the other thing to notice is that when Nishi is killed, he is driving a Studebaker. I realize that is a dead marquee, but at the time it was considered the car for performance enthusiasts. People who were edgy drove Studebakers. Something is being said about Nishi’s character and I think it is illustrated in his actions.

    Your point regarding Nishi’s occupation went right by me when I was watching the film. Nishi is a profiteer, and consequently is not squeaky clean either, interesting thought. I do think the idea of a large car on narrow Japanese streets does convey a certain arrogance, a “get out of the way, an important man is coming through” attitude that a power broker may want to project. AK is always saying something, even when it appears he is saying nothing.

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    Ugetsu

    BMWRider

    I suppose the other thing to notice is that when Nishi is killed, he is driving a Studebaker. I realize that is a dead marquee, but at the time it was considered the car for performance enthusiasts.

    Well spotted! It does seem significant given that at that time Studebaker would have been considered a very expensive car – no doubt a direct import from the US rather than something manufactured under license. So yes, it probably does say something about Nishi.

    AK is always saying something, even when it appears he is saying nothing.

    Exactly. And it does remind us I think that set design and careful choice of props is a very important element of film making. I see the production designer – Yoshiro Muraki – worked on a lot of AK films – I must admit this is the first I’ve come across his name. Another collaborator who perhaps should get more acknowledgement? I think that the overall quality of set design on Kurosawa films is usually superlative – something that would almost justify a major study in its own right.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: so perhaps he was subtly hinting that Nishi himself wasn’t ‘pure’ in that sense – his business would have involved profiting indirectly from dirty money

    My understanding is that their business also started with dirty money. I may understand this wrong, but at one point when Nishi and Itakura are reminiscing about the past, after talking about the destruction of the factory they tell Wada that they “used to haul industrial oil out of [the factory] in [a] cart to sell to the fancy villas. It was gone in seconds. We managed to make that money grow. Provisions brokers, textile brokers, steel brokers.” (from about 01:50:00, Criterion subtitles)

    Maybe I’m mistaken, but wouldn’t this mean that the two were practically selling stolen goods already during war?

    Ugetsu: Yoshiro Muraki

    Muraki, who sadly passed away in 2009, is one of my own favourites from the Kurosawa-gumi. You are right that he probably doesn’t get the credit that he deserves, but it seems to me that he was one of the most important people around Kurosawa. He is also almost always the most interesting of the various people interviewed for the “It is wonderful to create” documentaries that are on most of Kurosawa’s Criterion releases.

    I think Muraki was the production designer or art director for all but five of Kurosawa’s films starting with Drunken Angel (although initially as a an assistant art director). You could even make the argument that the five films that he didn’t work on all had some problems with the set design: The Quiet Duel, Scandal, Rashomon, The Idiot and Dersu Uzala. Except, perhaps, for Rashomon.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    Muraki, who sadly passed away in 2009, is one of my own favourites from the Kurosawa-gumi. You are right that he probably doesn’t get the credit that he deserves, but it seems to me that he was one of the most important people around Kurosawa. He is also almost always the most interesting of the various people interviewed for the “It is wonderful to create” documentaries that are on most of Kurosawa’s Criterion releases.

    Ah, I didn’t connect him with the name.

    You could even make the argument that the five films that he didn’t work on all had some problems with the set design: The Quiet Duel, Scandal, Rashomon, The Idiot and Dersu Uzala. Except, perhaps, for Rashomon.

    When you list them like that of course it seems obvious that he had a huge positive influence on the films (I suppose since there was only one real ‘set’ on Rashomon it doesn’t really count, even if the Gate is very impressive).

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    BMWRider

    I suppose I am alone in my love of Dersu Uzala, I have always thought that allowing the Siberian wilderness to speak for itself was brilliant.

    Maybe I’m mistaken, but wouldn’t this mean that the two were practically selling stolen goods already during war?

    Indeed they are, at the least they are opportunists taking advantage of postwar confusion to sell goods that have been abandoned. Another point that went by me.

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    Ugetsu

    BMWRider

    ndeed they are, at the least they are opportunists taking advantage of postwar confusion to sell goods that have been abandoned. Another point that went by me.

    My feelings on watching that scene was that they were both in a sort of denial – they saw themselves as the good guys who brought themselves from poverty through hard work and smarts, while to the audience they were revealing themselves to be profiteers, different from the Corporation in scale only.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: My feelings on watching that scene was that they were both in a sort of denial – they saw themselves as the good guys who brought themselves from poverty through hard work and smarts, while to the audience they were revealing themselves to be profiteers, different from the Corporation in scale only.

    I would guess that Kurosawa’s intention was to play with the audience. Suddenly the “good guys” are no longer purely good, and we start to question their motives. Around the same time, we are also told that Nishi didn’t really know or even like his father. Now we are also questioning his right for the revenge that he is seeking.

    I think that this is consistent with the film’s overall narrative style. Take the wedding cake, for instance — we are shown it early on, but explained it only later. The same goes for Wada — why Nishi stops him from committing suicide is not clear until later. We are constantly given information that we have to interpret in some way, only to be told later what it actually means.

    Perhaps this is to get us to question also those things that we thought we knew in real life.

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