The Bad Sleep Well (Toho, 1960; American release 1963) directed by Akira Kurosawa
Akira Kurosawa directed at least four film noir or noir-stained titles: Drunken Angel (1948), Stray Dog (1949), The Bad Sleep Well (1960), and High and Low (1963). The Bad Sleep Well seems to be the least regarded among these works, possibly because it contains noir elements, but is typically overshadowed by the most popular and more approachable High and Low. But The Bad Sleep Well, Kurosawa’s tale of corporate greed, corruption, and revenge, can certainly find a home in your Noirvember viewing.
The story opens at a modern day wedding reception, but not just any wedding reception. This large, grand event, combining Japanese and Western traditions, celebrates the wedding of Koichi Nishi (Toshiro Mifune) to Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa), the daughter of a man named Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori), the vice president of a powerful government housing company. This seems interesting, since Iwabuchi is also Nishi’s boss.
Members of the press have been allowed in (at a distance), looking for any evidence of the rumored scandals that have circulated lately about the housing company.
While tension is in the air, one of the event staff wheels out a wedding cake that grabs everyone’s attention. This isn’t a typical wedding cake, but one made in the shape of an office building. Even more interesting, a black rose hangs from one of the cake’s miniature windows. Everyone understands its significance: Just five years earlier, the scapegoat of another of the company’s scandals committed suicide by jumping out of a seventh-floor window.
This reminder breaks the current scandal wide open with several different characters affected in the proceedings. I won’t go into the complexities of what happens next, but needless to say, someone is not who he appears.
The Bad Sleep Well is a film focusing on political and corporate corruption, asking the question, “What would happen if someone investigated the levels of evil and followed them all the way to the end?” The picture also contains more than a touch of Hamlet.
The performances are excellent, and the audience is constantly questioning everyone’s motives, but while one of the major character’s actions betray his motives, we never know as much as we really need in order to decide if we’re on his side. Perhaps that's the ambiguity Kurosawa intended. The impact of the final scene feels incomplete, but that could stem from that fact that we’re used to seeing this type of movie playing out differently in American films. Also, at 150 minutes, The Bad Sleep Well seems to demand an ending that can support all the build-up.
I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on the film. I hope to revisit it again someday. It’s not available on Blu-ray with English subtitles, but you can find the Criterion DVD or the BFI single release, or the Kurosawa Crime Collection Region 2 DVD set which includes all the films mentioned in my opening paragraph. Also the film is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.