Criterion // 1960 // 150 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // January 30th, 2006
Something's rotten in the state of Public Corporation
With the exception of High and Low, Criterion's earliest releases from Akira Kurosawa's canon were jidei-geki, the samurai epics for which he is most famous in the West. Recent releases of Stray Dog and Ikiru have begun to remedy that situation, giving Kurosawa fans a clearer picture of how the filmmaker was constantly moving back and forth between jidai-geki and gendai-geki, or films with a contemporary setting. This DVD of The Bad Sleep Well continues that trend. Originally released in theaters in 1960, it followed samurai actioner The Hidden Fortress, and was followed by the chambara duology Yojimbo and Sanjuro, which were in turn followed by High and Low.
Though it doesn't occupy the top tier of the director's oeuvre, The Bad Sleep Well is a mostly successful effort that helps to further clarify -- for those who have been slowly building a Kurosawa DVD collection over the past few years -- the director's fascination with the ills of the Japan of his day, and how that fascination informed both his period and contemporary films. The picture's tale of corporate corruption is an intelligent blend of current events, American film noir, and Shakespeare's Hamlet, with maybe a bit of Carol Reed's The Third Man thrown in for good measure. It is, in other words, pure Kurosawa.
Koichi Nishi (Toshiro Mifune, Yojimbo) marries the daughter (Kyoko Kagawa, The Lower Depths) of his boss, Public Corporation president Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori, Rashomon), amid a backdrop of corporate scandals playing out in the Japanese press. The housing development company is under legal pressure because of its relationship with Dairyu Corporation, a disgraced construction company. Many of Dairyu's top executives found important positions at Public Corp after the apparent suicide of a Dairyu higher-up some five years earlier. The police and prosecutors are investigating charges of graft and kickbacks.
Nishi, we learn, has ulterior motives. Secretly the son of the deceased executive, he's using his position as Iwabuchi's assistant and son-in-law to exact revenge.
When Public executives on the hook with the prosecutor (Chishu Ryo, Tokyo Story) begin conveniently committing suicide, Nishi saves and then kidnaps one of them: Mr. Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara, The Hidden Fortress). After Wada's death is reported in the press, Nishi uses the man's insider knowledge to torment the Public powerbrokers, including Mr. Shirai (Ko Nishimura, Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire) and Mr. Moriyama (Takashi Shimura, Ikiru).
Nishi's plan for revenge is complicated by his falling in love with his new bride, who suffers from a childhood deformity. Just as Nishi finds the will to carry on with his plan, Moriyama discovers his true identity, propelling Nishi and his opponents towards a final confrontation.
If the play's the thing to catch the conscience of the king in Shakespeare's Hamlet, then the wedding banquet's the thing to catch the conscience of the big biz suits in Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well. The opening scene in which reporters scurry about, covering the lush reception for Nishi and his bride, is a riveting, tour-de-force piece of filmmaking. If the rest of the movie was awful (which it is not), this scene would still be worth the price of admission. It seamlessly integrates necessary exposition with ripples of escalating tension. The gaggle of reporters acts as a kind of Greek chorus, introducing us to the various characters and the corporate sins of which they're accused. Meanwhile, the mood of the banquet is marred when authorities take Wada into custody for questioning. The rest of the executives -- a combination of Public Corp. and former Dairyu honchos -- sweat bullets. They want the wedding rituals to be over and done with so they can beat a hasty retreat. Kurosawa regulates the sequence's tension perfectly, twisting the characters into tighter knots at just the right moments. The violations of Japanese propriety are exquisite and well-timed, as when a toast by Iwabuchi's rebel son (Tatsuya Mihashi, Chushingura ) devolves into a threat to kill Nishi -- his good friend -- if he fails to make his sister happy. The sequence culminates in the heart-stopping delivery of a massive white wedding cake shaped like the Dairyu building, with a red rose stuck in the very window from which the dead executive, whose ghost seems to haunt the banquet, hurled himself. The beady-eyed execs are horrified. And we're delighted.
The Bad Sleep Well has a weak three-act structure that foreshadows the unique two-act structure of High and Low. After the whiz-bang first act, whose tense highlights include the aforementioned wedding banquet, as well as some brilliantly executed sequences in which Public Corp. executive Mr. Shirai is haunted by the "ghost" of Mr. Wada, we're treated to an ultra-flat second act that isn't much more than a bridge between Act One and the stylistically divergent Act Three. The middle of the picture is hampered by a surplus of exposition as characters explain, and re-explain, everything we've seen in the first third of the picture. It's surprisingly ham-fisted for Kurosawa. The narrative stumbles are perhaps the result of his having worked with twice the number of screenwriters he normally employed, and of each man producing his scenes in isolation from the others (Kurosawa's normal modus operandi was to have each man write each scene; the best of them was incorporated into the final script). By way of example, Nishi reveals his secret background and motives for tormenting the Public Corp. executives to us in a tense confrontation with Mr. Shirai. Later, Mr. Moriyama's investigations on behalf of Iwabuchi yield the same answers. One of the scenes is unnecessary.
Perhaps the reason that Kurosawa is all thumbs during this second act is that he consciously approached The Bad Sleep Well as a shikai-mono, or social critique film. It's a longstanding genre in Japanese cinema, but one that Kurosawa doesn't have a history of handling well. When he focuses primarily on larger ideas or social issues, Kurosawa tends to veer into either sentimentality or rigid, non-organic storytelling. Act Two of The Bad Sleep Well is an example of the latter. The irony of Kurosawa's career is that when he maintains a focus on character psychology, he almost uniformly delivers on all levels, producing films with rich characters, compelling drama, and whose statements about Japanese culture and society are profound (The Lower Depths is a prime example of a picture that succeeds on all these levels).
Were The Bad Sleep Well made by a director less brilliant than Kurosawa, its dud second act would be a dagger in the viewer's heart, a disappointing finale to what began as a promising tale of intrigue and corruption. But since this is Kurosawa we're talking about, Act Two is no finale. Disaster is avoided by a third act whose style is entirely different from the first, and whose execution returns vigor to the film. Act Two draws a (too hasty) conclusion to the noir elements of the film. In Act Three, the picture blossoms into a kind of chamber drama, set mostly in Nishi's hideout in an old factory bombed out during the war. There, Nishi, his cohorts, and the kidnapped Mr. Moriyama scheme, and spar with one another psychologically. The combination of dilapidated setting, intelligent repartee, and sense of impending doom evoke a bit of Harry Lime's shadowy subterranean world in The Third Man. The narrative pace picks up again here, propelling us toward what we sense will be a tragic climax -- one best not discussed any further in this review.
Let's talk DVD. Would it surprise you if I said the Criterion Collection's done a stellar job of making The Bad Sleep Well look beautiful on DVD? I thought not. The image is so attractive, it'll make you yen for a re-issue of High and Low (not to mention Yojimbo and Sanjuro). The transfer comes from a composite print of the original negative, and is nearly pristine. Contrast is mostly gorgeous, though black levels seem ever so slightly oversaturated at points. Any flaws are minor, though. The picture is framed at its theatrical ratio of 2.35:1, and the image is anamorphically enhanced.
Audio is a single-channel mono presentation of the original Japanese soundtrack. The track has been treated to a full digital restoration, which removed clicks and hiss while leaving crisp, natural sound and clear dialogue. Optional English subtitles by Linda Hoaglund are provided.
In keeping with its place in Kurosawa's canon, The Bad Sleep Well comes to us via Criterion's light-on-supplements budget line. That said, it offers a 33-minute episode of Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create, focused on the production of The Bad Sleep Well. This excellent series of documentaries were produced for Toho's DVD releases of Kurosawa's films in Japan, and have been a regular feature on Criterion's releases over the past couple years. If you've seen previous entries in the series, you'll know what to expect here. If you haven't, you're in for a treat.
The only other supplement housed on the disc is a theatrical trailer that runs nearly three minutes in length.
The accompanying insert booklet contains two informative essays. The first is the "The Higher Depths." Written by Chuck Stephens, contributing editor of Film Comment, it covers The Bad Sleep Well's place in Japanese cinema and Kurosawa's oeuvre. "Shakespeare's Ghost" is by director Michael Almereyda (Hamlet ), and covers the picture's loose connection to the Bard's great tragedy.
The Bad Sleep Well is proof once again that a mediocre Kurosawa film is still a pretty darn good film. The middle of the picture teeters on the brink of narrative collapse, but rights itself for a rousing conclusion.
Though light on supplements, the DVD is up to Criterion standards. The Bad Sleep Well isn't essential Kurosawa, but fans of the director will be pleased with this release.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 150 Minutes
Release Year: 1960
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create Documentary
* Essay by Film Scholar Richard Combs
* Essay by Screenwriter-Director Michael Almereyda