By William Benker
The Bad Sleep Well – 1960 – dir. Akira Kurosawa
Kurosawa’s neo-noir The Bad Sleep Well is a hybrid examination on the evil of revenge. Drawn by a thread of vengeance, each turn of events show that evil only grows more complex when driven by a sense of justice. While the film’s protagonist Nishi (Toshiro Mifune) reveals his vengeful pursuit through an embezzlement scandal that consumes his company, Kurosawa unravels the evil dimension that has trapped each and every character involved. It proves in the end that no matter what type of justice is sought after, the dirt it always on someone else’s hands. When all is said and done, the cleanest hands suffer the greatest loss.
Common knowledge today bears acceptance of the evil of the media. This theme plays a great role in the film, for the public’s commentary falls into practically all discussions. In the prelude of the film (even described as such by a reporter), business clouds the joyous occasion of the wedding of Nishi and Yoshiko (daughter of vice-president, Imabuchi). In an embezzlement scheme creatively introduced in the shape of a most memorable wedding cake, the operation has permeated the celebration, becoming an arena for speculation. Each scene is riddled with conspicuous activity. While the media speculates Nishi’s own reasons for marrying his boss’s daughter (thus propelling himself up the corporate ladder), this small fraction of deceit is neither true nor bears any weight on the real evil of the corporation in question. In reality, the union between Nishi and Yoshiko may be the only shred of love you’ll receive in the highly intelligent film noir. But it also may represent a shot at the media, whose focus is often misplaced on trivialities rather than the real story.
Vice-President Imabuchi, (supposedly) is behind the prevalent corporate scheme that propels The Bad Sleep Well. Imabuchi openly lies to the media regarding his apparent ignorance of his executives’ suicides. His manipulative nature gradually reveals itself throughout the course of the film. Kurosawa appears to be expressing a long sought after belief of the corporate boss. Eventually seeing Nishi as his enemy, there is no question as to what needs to be done. Each and every decision the vice-president makes is without sorrow or regret. He fears no loss besides his high ranking position and only answers to an anonymous voice. Iwabuchi will stop at nothing to ensure the survival of the company.
Despite the heavy noir landscape, the film is not without its own flare of ghostly appearances. Much like the unseen third party commentary of the media, Kurosawa toys with his characters into the supernatural realm. Nishi’s plan involves a cruel piece-by-piece dissection of one of the executive’s own sanity. Shirai’s own mental state becomes a patsy for the audience’s own confusions as the story unravels. When Nishi reveals his own connection with a prior suicide scandal years earlier, the skeletons in the closet effectively send Shirai to the asylum. The dark tale becomes a cruel array of false stories and twisted manipulation. Despite the initial complexity of suicide and false ghosts, Kurosawa’s steady pace gives the audience a healthy amount of explanation as the story progresses.
Perhaps the most complex form of evil comes from the protagonist Nishi. While the concrete rational for his vengeful scheme carries legitimacy, the evil within himself is often lamented. Kurosawa dives into the idea of vengeance throughout the film, regarding such hate as a double-edged sword. As the first half of The Bad Sleep Well is categorically a stark imagining on the evils of greed and corporate power, the second half relies heavily on the cost of uncovering that evil, primarily at the cost of its victims. Eventually the message of vengeance reveals itself to be of a circular nature. The elaborate plan to take apart the evil company reacts negatively on both sides. The most disheartening display is found when the tide of corporate power sweeps in to paint the media friendly conclusion of Nishi’s foiled plan. The true explanation is only given to the powerless victims. Iwabuchi explains that all is taken care of to the faceless president, who still stands strong and anonymous behind his powerful corporate cabinet.
Regardless of its age, The Bad Sleep Well paints a crystal clear portrayal of the present. An anonymous corporate power on the other line watches as a media frenzy desperately tries to put the puzzle pieces together. Also prevalent is the fruitless pursuit for justice, driven only by the questionably equal evil veil of revenge. Sadly, the entire scheme comes at the cost of the people who lose themselves in their own ambitions, forgetting what truly matters most. Akira Kurosawa claimed the film was made too early, evidently aware of the evolving relevance of the film in contemporary society. Still, a film noir crafted to perfection by the master himself, Kurosawa’s film continues to gather relevance today, despite having been produced fifty years ago.