The Bad Sleep Well (Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru)

Japan (1960) Dir. Akira Kurosawa

Revenge is a dish best served cold as the saying goes – unless that method of payback is a red-hot poker up the jacksy! But I digress. The intelligence behind a clever plot to bring someone down also requires ruthlessness to execute it, so beware if your good nature should override your lust for vengeance.

The wedding of Yoshiko Iwabuchi (Kyoko Kagawa) to Koichi Nishi (Toshiro Mifune) has drawn extraordinary interest from the press, not because Yoshiko is the daughter of Dairyu Construction Company’s vice president Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori) and Nishi his secretary, but due to rumours the police are looking to arrest members of the company for their role in many corporate misdeeds.

Whilst no arrests were made, the guilty party are sweating knowing the police are onto them, but their real concern is the wedding cake in the shape of the company building with a black rose in one of the windows, marking the floor from which an employer named Furuya, a part of the dodgy schemes, leapt to his death. The timing is uncanny as one by one the corrupt cabal are targeted by a vengeful presence.

Kurosawa had previously adapted a Shakespeare play in 1957’s Throne Of Blood (based on Macbeth) but this was set in feudal Japan, as was 1985’s Ran, a take on King Lear; The Bad Sleep Well is a loose take on the Bard’s Hamlet, allowing Kurosawa to vent his anger at the practices of the corrupt business elite in a post-war Japanese society, only with less soliloquies addressed to a disembodied skull.

Godzilla six years earlier was an allegory for Japan losing everything to atomic forces but paid tribute to the country’s resolve to dusting itself down and get back to normal; here a different kind of monster is damaging Japanese morale – corporate greed, one which has no compunction in using traditional philosophy in sacrificing oneself for the cause to ensure it gets off scot free.

Opening with the aforementioned wedding, the exposition heavy gossip of the slavering journalists waiting or their scoop informs us many of Dairyu’s top brass in attendance are up to their neck in it. Without concrete evidence and the unwillingness to talk, the police aren’t getting too far in making arrests, but their interest in these dodgy dealings is enough for the guilty party to start damage limitation measures.

A bit of digging from an anonymous source reveals those at the top of the chain can be very persuasive in getting the lower order to take a bullet for them to keep them free from conviction, or if they refuse, give them a tiny push – usually out of a high storey window. No guesses how Furuya happen to meet his end then, but who outside of the core group is aware of this and why make an appearance now?

Spoiler time – it was Nishi, the loyal hardworking and trusted secretary to Iwabuchi and – whoops – now his son-in-law. Nishi isn’t his real name – that would be Furuya – although he was estranged from his father because his birth was sort of illegitimate. I say sort of – Furuya was going to marry Nishi’s mother but his company “suggested” he marry a classier woman instead.

Nishi barely knew his father, having grown up believing he was an orphan, until he received a post office account with 1.5 million yen in it just prior to his father’s “suicide”. Along with best friend Itakura (Takeshi Kato), Nishi’s plan is to expose Iwabuchi and his cohorts and have them face justice. Marrying Yoshiko, a plain girl with a lame leg, was his first step, but she proves to be an early casualty of this scheme when Nishi falls for her for real.

Digging deep into the noir playbook, Kurosawa fills out the story with timely suicides from the prime suspect to avoid arrest, although one doesn’t actually happen as part of Nishi’s plan. Meek assistant Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara) is thought dead but Nishi stops him and convinces Wada to play ghost to spook the others into cracking and confessing, except in one instance it is a little too effective, reducing slimy Shirai (Ko Nishimura) to a total breakdown.

The scenes of Wada haunting Shirai of are masterfully staged, featuring a nod or two to the seminal shadowy first appearance of Harry Lime in The Third Man, whilst likely being a precursor to the spectral atmosphere found in Kaneto Shindo’s sublime horror films Onibaba and Kuroneko. Brilliantly, executed, edited, and acted, these are among the strongest moments of the entire film.

With a run time of almost 2 ½ hours, the first hour takes its time in setting up the story, with the wedding scene alone almost thirty minutes long. As heretic as this might sound, there is an argument for some trimming, evident by the abruptness of the ending, itself following a final act climax that is actually just a summarising of events which occurred off screen in place of something epic to end this with a bang.

Prior to this though, once things get going, the mental game of chess between Nishi and Iwabuchi is played out in gripping noir fashion, but with an underlying narrative of Nishi losing his grip on his own conscience in seeking revenge. Lines are crossed and both Wada and Itakura notice Nishi is becoming no better than those he faces, and realising he loves Yoshiko plays havoc with his sense of right and wrong, not wanting to hurt her yet wanting to crush the father she idolises.  

As ever, Mifune is a commanding presence whenever he is on screen, and Kurosawa is in complete control as director of the tone. For me, The Bad Sleep Well is a great Japanese take on film noir that keeps us on edge but takes a little too long getting into first gear and ends on a flat note. An assured but different work from Kurosawa nonetheless.  

5 thoughts on “The Bad Sleep Well (Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru)

  1. I’ve seen a lot of Kurosawa’s films, and The Bad Sleep Well is by far my least favorite. It’s not what I would call bad and the setup is masterfully done, but the ending was very poorly implemented, electing to tell rather than to show. It also suffers from a problem I’ve seen in a lot of bad contemporary films wherein the writer is in a position in which they force themselves to choose between being a satirist or a storyteller and going with the former at the latter’s expense. It’s still far more watchable than a lot of the stuff today’s auteurs come up with, but I wouldn’t be quick to recommend it – especially because High and Low covers a lot of the same themes without sacrificing the story’s integrity in the process.

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    1. The ending is its weakest point, along with the plodding pacing, It is as if Kurosawa couldn’t think of a suitable climax so he went with the noir antithesis of “And they all lived happily ever after” to save time and budget expense.
      I know auteurs like their ambiguous and enigmatic endings but this was neither – a rare misfire for someone like Kurosawa who was at the height of his powers at this point.

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