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:
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