Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writer: Hideo Oguni, Eijirō Hisaita, Akira Kurosawa, Ryūzō Kikushima, and Shinobu Hashimoto
Cinematographer: Yuzuru Aizawa
Producer: Akira Kurosawa and Tomoyuki Tanaka
by Jon Cvack
This is one of the few times I’ve watched a movie twice in a row in order to grasp its details. I was on a week of early call time production, putting this on at 5am when my mind just couldn’t possibly follow the details. Watching it again, I was less than certain of how the puzzle all fit together. Due to work, it then took me about two weeks to get to writing about this so I’ll be leaning on Wikipedia more than a bit.
The story is a corporate espionage thriller, opening at a Godfather style wedding; in which mega corporation Public Corpo’s* Vice President Iwabuchi’s (Masayuki Mori) crippled and average daughter Yoshiki (Kyōko Kagawa) is getting married to the President’s handsome secretary Kōichi Nishi(Toshiro Mifune). Recently, one of their co-workers Assistant Chief Furuya had allegedly committed suicide by jumping out the top floor window; that, or maybe he was pushed. Either way, given the recent tragedy, it doesn’t seem exactly aboveboard.
The most memorable part of these scenes are the News Reporters who follow the action while narrating what’s going on. It reminds of Shakespeare without any specific play in mind; making me think it was Kurosawa simply taking influence and creating his own way of immersing us within the story. I thought of how else the situation could be explained without long draining conversations that talked in circles in order to convey details; that or a title card that simply threw us in. I struggle to think of another film that has done something this interesting; in which we follow a band of characters as they narrate the set up to the film.
The wedding ends when a mysterious cake in the shape of the building and the man who fell rolls out. Speeches are given by both various men; with Yoshiki’s brother declaring that if Nishi’s intentions are anything short of honorable he’s going to kill him. The News Men provide just enough humor to prevent the situation from becoming too heavy. The police then arrive and arrest a middle management corporate assistant officer Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara) for bribery; learning that word of the suicide put to rest rumors about the company’s finances. Why did Chief Furuya kill himself, or was he murdered? I’m still unclear, though I know it’s in there.
Days after the wedding the police talk to one of the accountants at Public Corp name Miuna who’s so spooked out by the consequences that he throws himself in front of a car. Wada then heads to a Volcano in order to end his own life; shot in a dystopic scene where smoke billows from jagged crevices. In the wonderful series included on most Criterion Kurosawa films “Isn’t it Wonderful to Create!” - which is essentially a fifty minute documentary on the making of most of his major films - they mention how Kurosawa demanded they add as much smoke as possible; even though there was already actual volcano smoke rising up; going through hundreds of barrels of smoke in order to enhance the effect.
He’s stopped by Nishi (the recent groom), who demands Wada stay alive in order to gain revenge on the company; learning that while the men like Minua and Furuyua killed themselves out of their own volition, it was also due to feeling unwavering commitment to the company’s welfare. They were loyal bureaucrats who had lost all sense of self; serving entirely for the company that views them as dispensable.
Nishi then turns to the contract officer Shirai (Ko Nishimura), setting him up to look like a thief to both Iwabuchi and Moriyama. Later Shirai reveals that he was the illegitimate son of Furuya and is determined to avenge his father’s death. Intimidated by Nishi and his besmirching antics, Shirai slowly unwinds before going completely insane. Moriyama soon suspects that someone connected to Furuyua is operating behind the scenes to manipulate Shira and others; telling Iwabuchi (again, the brother of the recent bride Yoshiki) that he’s going to avenge his sister’s honor, attempting to kill Nishi.
As the double dealing and manipulation spiral out of control, I quickly got lost in the web; partially due to Kurosawa’s gorgeous framing techniques. One scene involves Nishi and Shirai in the car, utilizing what Kurosawa described as Deep Focus to maintain all of the elements of the frame. What’s odd is that to achieve such a thing typically requires a wide lens that make the subjects in the foreground smaller and yet someone the shot looks like a medium and yet it preserves the focus; making me think Kurosawa moved the subjects closer to the car and place the camera as closely as possible to the subjects. Added was that it was supposed to be raining and, again, the art director had to explain that he couldn’t achieve Kurosawa’s vision; never an easy conversation to have as I’ve heard in most of these docs. If I remember correctly, it actually was a lighting problem, as they couldn’t get enough light to get the outside subjects in focus; which then exceeds my understanding of photography.
Reading the remaining synopsis, I realize I’d be left simply reciting the Wikipedia page, as the plot grows so complex that I’m more in awe of how the script was written. Essentially, Nishi soon mentioned in the documentary was the team of a half dozen or so writers who would essentially divide up the labor; often butting heads with Kurosawa who demanded the story go in a different direction. As a result, the complexity diminishes the story, as it’s so confusing that you essentially have to avoid being in awe of Kurosawa’s gorgeous imagery and the cast’s phenomenal performances all distracted me from properly following the narrative; even after a back to back viewing.
It’s this exact style that embodies the world it’s portraying. The film was based on some big business corruption taking place in Japan around the same time; something I imagine wouldn’t make national headlines in our own country. The story explores the dangers of committing loyalty to causes that reciprocates nothing.
As of writing this, Trump’s former senior campaign chairman Paul Manafort has agreed to “fully cooperate” with the Mueller investigation. His connections include being present at the Trump tower meeting; changing the official RNC platform against arming Ukraine with weapons to fight against Russia; and connections to both the Russian oligarchy, intelligence officers, and potentially mafia members. Listening to Meet the Press on the way up to a drop off, one of the guests mentions that Trump’s biggest downfall could very well be his demand of full loyalty from those closest to him while providing none in return. The idea is Shakespearean in nature; an idea I’m sure would fascinate Kurosawa; demonstrating that powerful people being fully corrupted knows no particular age or time. It will remain with humanity forever.
The Bad Sleep Well explores a similar idea; in which company bureaucrats devote themselves entirely to a cause, going so far as to die for it, when the business views them as nothing more than replaceables cogs. The nebulous titles indicate such - administrative officer, contract officer, accountant; titles that aren’t just meaningless in name but sound absolutely banal; as though the only meaning these individuals received in life was to commit themselves to a cause. Each documentary on the Criterion discs open with Kurosawa signing a photo at the bottom, writing, “Isn’t it fun to create!” As demanding as he might have been, everyone interviewed appears to fully comprehend that the art they created is some of the best in cinematic history; respecting and honoring the man who pushed them to best of their abilities.The saddest part about The Bad Sleep Well is that none of the characters appear to feel anywhere close to that sense of accomplishment or creation.
*For some reason Wikipedia has this as Unexploited Land Development Corporation; while Criterion had it translated as Public Corp. I prefer the latter, but I wonder where the Wikipedia person heard the phrase
BELOW: You don't realize how awesome this scene is until you're in a movie theater with hundreds of others
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