Okay, okay, I con­fess to being a smart-​​ass.

Japan’s been on my mind lately, partly because of the way North Korea’s been jack­ing around, and partly because some really good films have been com­ing from overseas.

Toho, for instance, recently released a two-​​disc defin­i­tive DVD of Gojira (the 1954 all-​​Nipponese ver­sion) along with Godzilla, the 1956 redux with Raymond Burr. Additionally, clas­sic animé series such as Cowboy Bebop have been remas­tered and re-​​released, there’s a forth­com­ing boxed set of the bizarre and beau­ti­ful flcl due out in November, and Criterion has begun really delv­ing into some of the greats from Japanese cin­ema, includ­ing movies such as Ugetsu and Hara-​​Kiri.

The Kanji and Hiragana char­ac­ters in this post’s title* spell the Japanese phrase warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru, which means, roughly, the worse you are, the bet­ter you sleep. The slim­mer trans­la­tion is The Bad Sleep Well, and it’s an over­looked rough dia­mond from the oeu­vre of Akira Kurosawa, one of the most respected film direc­tors of the twen­ti­eth century.

Better known for titles such as Seven Samurai (which was adapted into a Western in the US known as The Magnificent Seven) and gen­er­ally respected for the moody and atmos­pheric Rashomon, Kurosawa’s cin­ema career began before World War II and extended well after it.

During that time he helmed projects such as Red Beard, High and Low (Heaven and Hell), Yojimbo, Sanjuro and quite a few oth­ers, many of them star­ring the inim­itable Toshiro Mifune, a hero, anti­hero and, occa­sion­ally, some­thing in-​​between, such as his char­ac­ter Nishi in The Bad Sleep Well.

Part Hamlet, part moral­ity tale, part eerie pre­dic­tion of US neo-​​fascist pol­i­tics, this movie — shot in 1960 — tells us the story of a kick­back scheme mounted by the cor­rupt offi­cials of a for-​​profit ven­ture called Dairyu and a government-​​associated agency known as Public Corporation. The film opens with the mar­riage of Nishi to the daugh­ter of Dairyu’s pres­i­dent, an event watched — and com­mented on — by a dozen or so reporters.

A mys­tery soon unfolds when the happy cou­ple is pre­sented with a wed­ding cake in a most unusual design: The like­ness of an office build­ing from which a for­mer Dairyu employee leapt to his death half a decade ear­lier, com­plete with a sin­gle red rose mark­ing the loca­tion of the seventh-​​floor win­dow from which the unfor­tu­nate man jumped.

From there we are car­ried method­i­cally through an intri­cate, com­plex story that leaves us con­flicted about Nishi’s char­ac­ter (“To really hate evil,” he opines, “you have to become a lit­tle evil your­self”), unsure of which other char­ac­ters can be trusted, and ulti­mately shown a level of tragedy that begins with a left hook and fin­ishes us off, only min­utes later, with a dev­as­tat­ing round­house. In the third act of the film there is a per­va­sive sense of doom that Kurosawa is intensely con­scious of, leav­ing us to won­der what the sig­nif­i­cance is of a vial of sleep­ing pow­der and pre­sent­ing us with the stark sym­bol­ism of a cou­ple sep­a­rated by a sim­ple wooden beam.

The Bad Sleep Well was Kurosawa’s first inde­pen­dent film. Prior to that time he’d been in the employ of oth­ers; when he and Mifune formed their own pro­duc­tion com­pany rid­ing the wave of sucess from films such as Seven Samurai, Kurosawa expressed a desire to make a movie that had more sig­nif­i­cance, that was socially rel­e­vant to mod­ern life in Japan.

The movie is a bizarre mix of the Western way of life as expe­ri­enced in post­war Japan com­bined with a uniquely Nipponese view. For instance at the wed­ding all the men are in tuxe­dos, but the women are in kimonos; the music cho­sen for the cer­e­mony is The Wedding March, yet the toasts are — nat­u­rally — all in Japanese.

The sene of cul­tural ten­sion is height­ened by the dis­tinctly ori­en­tal def­er­ence given to supe­ri­ors — one exec­u­tive is even con­vinced to throw him­self beneath the wheels of a truck only because of a sug­ges­tion relayed to him by his company’s attor­ney — in the midst of dis­tinctly occi­den­tal busi­ness prac­tices and busi­ness costume.

The sound­track, when it’s not being swamped by deliberately-​​chosen Western melodies, uses the Japanese musi­cal scale cou­pled with stark rhyth­mic taiko drum pat­terns, fur­ther empha­siz­ing the uneasy strug­gle for bal­ance in a cul­ture at once ancient and proud — and recently hum­bled and dec­i­mated. Other ten­sions are under­scored by shot fram­ing, bleak sets and sharp, high-​​key light­ing, giv­ing us a rich­ness and tex­ture that, while often asso­ci­ated with color imagery, is still truly the exclu­sive bourne of black and white.

There are times when this movie, which is two and a half hours in length, resem­bles Kabuki the­atre, com­plete with mask­like facial makeup (the tor­tured soul who thinks he’s see­ing the ghost of a dead col­league) and over­wrought per­for­mances (the wrench­ing nar­ra­tion of an imag­ined death sce­nario). These are dis­tinctly Kurosawa strokes — not gen­er­ally too heavy-​​handed, but they may be off­putting to any­one not famil­iar with his style — that only slightly mar, to the west­ern eye, a movie that is film noir, tragedy, and a res­o­nant indict­ment of one of the most uni­ver­sal of all human lusts — that for power, sta­tus and wealth.

Its mass makes it some­thing other than light week­end fare, its impact is aston­ish­ing in its depth, and there is a grow­ing con­sen­sus that the generally-​​overlooked The Bad Sleep Well is one of the more out­stand­ing prod­ucts of one man’s long and quite dis­tin­guished career.


* If they’re show­ing up as ques­tion marks, you need either a Japanese lan­guage pack or a com­puter upgrade. Here’s the graph­i­cal (bitmap) version:

warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru


No related posts.

Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.