In Kurosawa's HAMLET-like story of corporate scandal in post-war Japan, a young man attempts to use his position at the heart of a corrupt company to expose the men responsible for his father's death. Written by
Bernard Keane <BKeane2@email.dot.gov.au>
The Bad do indeed sleep well in this overlooked Kurosawa...
"The Bad Sleep Well" is a forgotten gem from one of Japan's great masters, Akira Kurosawa. His other two Shakespeare adaptations, "Throne of Blood" (Macbeth) and "Ran" (King Lear), are much more famous and well-regarded, justifiably so if you have seen them ("Ran" is particular is my favorite of all Kurosawa films). However, this sharp and caustic adaptation of Hamlet deserves an equal amount of praise and recognition. It may be the most bleak subject matter that Kurosawa ever tackled - the corruption in the highest levels of government in post-war Japan.
The film begins with a long but funny wedding sequence that illustrates Kurosawa's great skill as a director. We (and the camera) are among a group of reporters discussing the numerous convenient reasons for the marriage; the bride is lame and the daughter of Iwabuchi, the head of corporation, and the bridegroom, Nishi, has aspirations to elevate his status in the business. We see the comedy of manners play out in this sequence in increasingly humorous situations as the various parties deny the rumors and reporters continue comment to each other, culminating in the panicked looks on the faces of the corporate higher-ups as the wedding cake arrives - in the shape of their office building, Public Corp., with a red X marking a spot in one of the windows where one of their former partners committed suicide. It's a virtuoso sequence that perfectly sets up the tone of the rest of the film.
The newspapers have a field day with this, especially when various members of Public Corp. are investigated for fraud and embezzlement, yet they stoically remain silent and the case goes nowhere. Then it heats up again as a few of them commit suicide; the rumors are that they were goaded into doing so (n fact, they were). However, without any substance to press the matter, the case is dropped. And that's when the real story begins - one of the Public Corp executives, Wada, survives and is rescued by Nishi and his shadowy accomplice, Itakura.
This is followed by a brilliant scene in which Wada is taken to his own funeral and observes the farce - all the while, Nishi plays him a tape with Moriyama and Shirai, his former partners, plotting his murder. The way Kurosawa stages this is masterful; the sublime music emanating from the funeral is contrasted dramatically with the cold-blooded words of Public Corp, as Wada listens on. One of the ways Wada contributes is to scare the living hell out of Shirai - Wada poses as a ghost of himself in order to freak him out (a clever method of adding in the ghost in Hamlet). As the plot progresses, Nishi reveals his reasons for saving Wada and exacting a very personal revenge on Iwabuchi and his cohorts; and the story's pace becomes more frantic and exciting with a dramatic but sudden conclusion.
Technically, Kurosawa is at his best here. The wedding and the funeral are both marvels of observational behavior and they contrast each other perfectly. He uses a lot of intriguing mise-en-scene compositions for his interiors that serve to highlight his characters' inner thoughts but very little movement of the camera in order to manipulate his audience; the dark nature of the story is enough to suck you in. One of the fascinating observations in "The Bad Sleep Well" is that nearly all of the characters are morally bankrupt and filled with secrets - even Nishi, the protagonist. His wife, the Ophelia character, is the only one that Kurosawa allows us to feel sympathy for, and even then in the end she is not fully spared her grief. Taken in this context, Kurosawa's Hamlet becomes a study in the morality and pragmatism of revenge but also an incisive jab at the fat cats in modern Japan.
If there is a flaw in the film, it is that the overall pacing is not always brisk enough to sustain the long running time (2 1/2 hours). The wedding, despite being absolutely essential, is protracted; the rest of the film is much quicker but still drags in parts. Also, Kurosawa seems unsure about his ending; the film ends quite abruptly but appropriately in terms of his larger point about the hopelessness of fighting the rampant corruption, I would argue. However, despite these flaws, overall "The Bad Sleep Well" is a masterful and dark excursion into the seedy side of corporate crime, using Shakespeare Hamlet brilliantly but not completely as it's core. Toshiro Mifune in particular gives one of his most unique low-key performances; instead of his usual fiery exterior we get a performance full of internalized anger throughout. Highly recommended.
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