In times of increasing significance of the corporate underworld and its impact on the society, Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru) proves to be a gritty and compelling achievement, able to spur further the ongoing, controversial debate about the ‘big business’ corruption in post-war Japan. Even though it marks the director’s yet another allusion to Shakespeare’s works (this time it’s Hamlet), and looks as though it’s been deeply affected by the American crime films from the 40’s and 50’s, it still indisputably reveals Kurosawa’s auteur approach to his own works.
It starts off with a very long, more confusing than inviting, scene of a wedding. Even before the newlyweds shop up on screen, the audience sees a couple of policemen barging in, and a group of nosy reporters trying to spot a scandal in this seemingly uneventful ceremony. And for their own great amusement, a distressing tension soon begins to develop, because of a sudden reminder – a cake that looks like the Public Corporation’s main headquarters, with a mysterious X placed in one of the windows – of a terrible accident that took place some time ago. The distressing atmosphere makes way for some shocking revelations, which in fact turn out to be a sufficient introduction of all the main guests. Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa), the crippled daughter of Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori), vice president of the aforementioned powerful corporation, is getting married to a man named Nishi (Toshiro Mifune), Iwabuchi’s personal assistant. The reports take a suitable position of social commentators, making open and derisive remarks about the past events, and one man’s (known as Furuya) suicide that actually postponed the thorough investigation of the company’s wrongdoings five years ago. Possessing a bitter, melodramatic touch, this scene is definitely one of the most explicit ways of presenting sheer emotional terrorism in film history. With subsequent talks of corruption, and next wave of interrogations, one of the corporation’s employees commits suicide, and another one – Wada – is on his way to do the same on top of a volcano. However, he encounters Nishi, emerging from a murky mist. In this visually stunning, tranquil scene, Nishi shows his deep anger and ferocious nature. While everyone thinks that Wada died atop of the mountain, he is forced to join Nishi in what soon proves to be a revenge plot. Wada’s shady persona is cleverly used as a mean to scare other high-ranked workers, and make them literally go mad. First on the list is Shirai (Ko Nishimura). Being mentally abused by Wada’s ‘ghost’ appearances, he becomes a fall guy in the masterfully crafted plan. The film’s greatest mystery is revealed in the exact same room, from which Furuya jumped five years ago – Nishi happens to be his son, and now seeks bloody revenge for what was done to his father. One of the movie’s recurring themes is hidden in the corporate culture, which baldly states that lower workers should willingly die rather than expose their superiors’ secrets.
An ingenious turning point in the movie’s storyline shows its true face when Iwabuchi, and his closest companion Moriyama (Takashi Shimura), discover that all of the mysterious signs (the cake, a letter in a deposit box, the room where Shirai went mad) point to a dangerous conclusion: someone close to Furuya is plotting a revenge. At the same time, Nishi, who never loved his wife and married her only to get closer to her evil father, gradually begins to have feelings for Yoshiko. And even though he initially wanted to see all the ‘bad’ men dead, he decides that driving them insane will be just enough. Unfortunately, his avenger-like attitude proves to be his own demise, as he soon finds himself trapped in the risky game of cat-and-mouse. While Nishi tortures one corporate officer after another, Iwabuchi’s clever instincts make him realize that his own poor daughter is the key to unraveling the whole mystery. His cunning plan to make Kyoko expose her husband’s hideout quickly comes to fruition. And then, after an intense and strictly emotional finale, Nishi’s death is announced. Silenced, just as his father, he won’t be able to tell the whole world about the corrupted life and cruel actions of the Public Corporation’s officials. Yet again, the bad may sleep well in their comfortable beds.
With its conspicuous noir overtone and huge emphasis put on the steady black-and-white cinematography, The Bad Sleep Well is both a straightforward critique of the corruption in contemporary Japan, and an engaging tale of one man’s impossible journey to avenge his parent’s death. While it might seem a bit too long and uneventful at times, it is a highly rewarding film with insightful social commentary and powerful message displayed in its vivid images and clever dialogues, strengthened by Toshiro Mifune’s bewildering performance as the withdrawn, yet ostentatiously explosive, protagonist.