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Why I don’t think The Bad Sleep Well is Shakespeare

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    This thread takes as its starting point a question posed by Lewis in the Planning the Akira Kurosawa Film Club thread.

    Me: and neither would I call The Bad Sleep Well a Shakespeare film

    Lewis: I’m curious why not?

    Well, this is of course only my opinion, but the Shakespeare connection seems to me so superficial that calling it a Shakespeare adaptation as some have done would, in my opinion, be a disservice to both Shakespeare and Kurosawa. You see, while both The Throne of Blood and Ran strongly deviate from their source materials and focus on aspects not necessarily so strongly brought forward by Shakespeare, I just don’t see The Bad Sleep Well really ever connecting with Hamlet at all.

    Both Hamlet and The Bad Sleep Well certainly tell a story of a revenge over a father’s death, but very little else seems to me to connect the two works. Now, Hamlet can and has of course be interpreted in a whole multitude of ways, so I can see how it is possible to draw parallels if one so wishes, like for example by connecting the question of moral corruption in Hamlet with the issue of political corruption in The Bad Sleep Well. But, as I said, all this seems very superficial.

    Meanwhile, the two works feel fundamentally very different. The are, for example, no actually corresponding narrative events. Character-wise, you would also be hard pressed to link anyone else than Nishi with a character from Hamlet. Similarly, the dramatic structures of the two works are very different, with Shakespeare’s work very character driven while in Kurosawa’s film it is the action that dictates.

    Thematically, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is preoccupied for example with the question of the morality of and the right for revenge, something that Nishi never ponders about. Shakespeare’s work is also heavily about the thin line between sanity and insanity (or what is real and what unreal) — again, this is completely missing from Kurosawa’s film. Shakespeare’s work can also be argued to be largely about the act of interpretation and the relativity of the truth (especially in terms of morality) — in Kurosawa, there appears to be no room for interpretation whatsoever, with no question about who is bad. In fact, none of the big topics tackled by Shakespeare seem to be present in Kurosawa.

    If, then, there are no corresponding events, only one corresponding character, no corresponding structure, and no thematic links, how much does it matter if the premises of the basic story is shared between the two? Surely, Hamlet is not the only revenge tragedy ever written.

    Had Kurosawa not done The Throne of Blood three years earlier, would anyone seriously draw a parallel between The Bad Sleep Well and Hamlet? Kurosawa himself never pointed out Hamlet as an inspiration for the film. It would therefore be a bit of a leap to call it an adaptation.

    Meanwhile, considering Hamlet simply as an influence, well, it is certainly possible, as Hamlet was apparently among Kurosawa’s favourite plays. But how did it influence the film, if there are no real parallels between the two?


    Jon Hooper

    Richie, by the way, notes rather more correspondences in The Films of Akira Kurosawa: apart from Hamlet-Mifune, there is also the figure of the father-in-law who stands in for Hamlet’s step-father figure, Kagawa for Ophelia, Mori for Claudius and her Laertes-like brother, Mifune’s Horatio-like friend, a Polonius-like mentor in Fujiwara, plus the wedding sequence as a kind of play to trap the company president. These, by the way, are all Richie’s parallels; I personally agree with you Vili that we can not go so far as to call the film an adaptation, though I do think that perhaps slightly more can be made of the echoes than you argue (wedding banquets, ghosts, corpses left in the revenger’s wake). I don’t have a copy of Hamlet to hand and have always been rather put off by the endless interpretations to be honest, so this is not a line I will be pursuing come the discussion proper. The reason I list Richie’s parallels here is in the hope that someone with a better memory of Hamlet than my own can counter them.


    Lewis Saul

    You both make excellent points.

    Relating only to the possible task of assigning AK films to certain categories, I still feel that it wouldn’t really be a stretch to lump Throne, Ran and this together as Shake adaptations … and to broaden the category, include Depths and Idiot as literary adaptations.

    And of course Goodwin is mainly about these five films — he has some interesting things to say. Besides, I just love the word intertextual



    I think that I need to read Richie and watch the film again before I can go further in what I wrote. Hamlet is the only piece in this puzzle that I feel is imprinted in my memory well enough, and even that I should probably read again, as I’m afraid what I remember is too much influenced by what I have read about Hamlet, and not the text itself (can’t even remember when it was that I read it last).

    It is perfectly imaginable that I have gone too far in attacking the idea of The Bad Sleep Well as Hamlet, and that there really is a kernel of truth in there. To be honest, I am just arguing against the connection because the last time I watched the movie and thought about all this, I remember coming to these conclusions without really remembering why and how. Similarly, I feel that the Shakespeare stamp is a bit too easy one to give, just like I feel that it is far too easy to call Star Wars a Kurosawa adaptation which it, in my mind, clearly isn’t. But even if it is more complex than that, totally refusing to see a possible Shakespeare connection would obviously be foolish. And I am ultimately open for the existence of competing interpretations, matters need not be black and white (in fact, they cannot be).

    However, let me also say that I feel that since the poststructuralists, the term intertextual has been tossed around perhaps a little bit too freely, and therefore I sometimes feel that connections are drawn and promoted without really giving the term and the theory any proper weight. This seems especially true with many studies connected to Shakespeare, and for understandable reasons, as Shakespeare easily sells more copies than any other target of literary investigation.

    In any case, as I said, I would need to go through both Shakespeare, the critical literature, and the film itself to be able to better reflect on everything. So, let me return to this once we get there with the Film Club.

    As for Kurosawa’s literary adaptations, weren’t almost all of his films based on a literary source of some kind, although he did tend to pull those works to pieces and use them as he saw fit.


    Jon Hooper

    “As for Kurosawa’s literary adaptations, weren’t almost all of his films based on a literary source of some kind, although he did tend to pull those works to pieces and use them as he saw fit.”

    I agree that literary adaptations would make the category rather a large one. Think of the Japanese literature that was the source for films like Red Beard and Rashomon. And what about where the source was popular fiction (Ed McBain for High and Low)? Perhaps a Shakespeare category and a Russian adaptations category would be more manageable? It might also be a good idea to group together films based on the works of Japanese authors but how many of us are likely to have read those stories and also wouldn’t that be pushing things in too literary a direction?

    I concur about intertextuality. It often seems that critics are playing an intellectual version of join the dots. Yes, everything connects, but the insistence on cataloguing the way one film references another often takes us away from an appreciation of the artistry of the director. It may all be part of the trend to shift away from the past veneration of genius and the creator. Not that I’m not guilty of it myself.



    Hi Vili, Jon, Lewis. Vili is right in saying that “The Bad Sleep Well” isn’t Shakespeare. Only Shakes is Shakes, and we don’t even know for sure about that!!!! Ha! Cinema is cinema, and adaptations are a certain kind of cinema. More on that in a mo.

    Vili, I agree and one-up ya, ‘cuz the term “intertextual” makes we want to puke. No disrespect to Lewis who has a very cool avatar pic, and who seems smart and cool but James’ Goodwin’s book is either an unfortunate exercise in postmodern criticism, or a misguided attempt to hot-up Kurosawa for the Millenials. In either case, unncessary. I’m not usually dismissive, and try to see the good in things, but it’s far too hard to do that with Goodwin’s book, and what he has to say should in no way be so painful to read.

    Sorry for that little rant. Back on point-ADAPT

    Pronunciation: ?-?dapt, a-

    Function: verb

    Etymology: French or Latin; French adapter, from Latin adaptare, from ad- + aptare to fit, from aptus apt, fit

    Date: 15th century

    transitive verb

    : to make fit (as for a specific or new use or situation) often by modification

    intransitive verb


    something that is adapted; specifically : a composition rewritten into a new form.

    So, could we agree that “The Lower Depths” is an adaptation, “The Idiot” is an adaptation, and “Throne of Blood” and “Ran” are adaptations, while “The Bad Sleep Well” explores themes and charactars similar to those found in “Hamlet”? Would that work?



    Perhaps it would. I might even go as far as to suggest that Kurosawa might have been subconsciously influenced by Hamlet. Maybe even consciously, at some point during the creation.

    I just want to adamantly hold on to my argument that calling it an “adaptation” would do disservice to both Shakespeare and Kurosawa. 🙂

    I personally, however, wouldn’t write off intertextuality (or indeed Goodwin) quite so easily. It’s quite different an animal from “adaptation” if you look at literary and film theory.



    Its a long time since I read Hamlet (I was in school at the time, to be precise), but I think the The Bad Sleep Well shares too many Hamlet-like motifs to be coincidence – the brooding hero, agonizing over whether his is more evil than those he wishes to gain revenge – the dead father – the use of poison – the innocent loving girl destroyed as collateral damage in the search for revenge – the use of the ‘play within a play’… Its certainly not an ‘adoption’ in the usual sense, but I do think it has at least as much connection with Hamlet as Ran has with Lear. A ‘loose retelling’ is how I’d describe it. 😉



    I definitely think there’s enough there to warrant an influence but, as with the whole YOJIMBO/RED HARVEST debate, Kurosawa went so far off in his own direction, that I agree the word “adaptation” no longer fits. People have already pointed out many similarities (the “ghost”, some character cross-over, the revenge plot, the staged ceremony), but I think a major connection is that, in taking down the enemies, the hero also threatens to destroy the family of the woman who loves him. Kurosawa, of course, changes the meaning and use of these elements, but they’re still there.

    For me, the main difference is that the bad guys are pretty much painted as bad guys (sure, the dude’s a nice dad, but that’s not an excuse) and the hero is a hero, however conflicted. The thing about the play, which I read before catching the film for the first time about six months back, is that I couldn’t help but feel Hamlet was the villain. Not to go off on a diatribe about the play instead of the film, but Hamlet’s father was a bloodthirsty warmonger. Hamlet’s uncle didn’t just kill him for the mother’s hand, but because the Uncle himself was a much more stable ruler who was a considerate strategist and took time to listen to his people. He didn’t just want the woman, he genuinely loved her and she loved him back, and he was more than willing to welcome her son as his own. But, through his actions, Hamlet not only avenged his father, but completely destroyed the family of his love and tore down the kingdom in the midst of a war it was about to settle, throwing it’s rule into the hands of another son who was angry because Hamlet’s dad killed his own.

    That was always an interesting portion of the play that I think is often lost because people would rather paint Hamlet as a tragic hero rather than a villain in his own right.

    Sorry. I rambled off there. No, I don’t think it’s an adaptation, but I do think the influence is there, whether conscious or not, just as with YOJIMBO and STAR WARS.



    No Shakes. No Adaptation. Influence, perhaps, yes. Conscious? Maybe yes, maybe no.

    Really getting the metrics of adaptation would be sweet.

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