The Great Film-making Journal: Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well
Updated: Jul 2, 2021
There are many exceptional pieces of screenwriting that balance plot, character and visual storytelling in a seamless and brilliant way. These moments, when they come up in a film take my breath away and alter my perception of what film can be. At one point, many years ago, I used to write them down in a notebook; a journal of great film-making. These scenes were sometimes not even in favourite films but, the film nerd that I am, I savoured these moments for what they were – perfect moments of an art form that I love.
There is a sequence in Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (an adaptation of Hamlet), which is in this category. Set in post-war Japan, Kurosawa’s screenplay examines the effect that political decisions can have on the personal, and by association, national psyche – how will the human soul be affected? The Bad Sleep Well shows us a complete warping of traditional values – a sickness brought about by corruption within new and established institutions disturbed by the war. Speaking later Kurosawa said: ‘Maybe it was because I came from the old samurai class, but even back then I remember hating anything crooked or underhanded’.
In the film there are a myriad of mousetraps, as Nishi, played by Ninagawa’s favourite actor, Toshiro Mifune, tries to expose his father’s murderers and bring down the company that treats employees as disposable commodities. The centre-piece to this film is a breath-taking and extraordinary scene which occurs directly after Nishi, has saved Wada, another company pawn, from committing suicide. Wada, who is believed dead by everyone, is forced by Nishi to watch his own funeral. Wada endures the ordeal, and with nothing to lose, plays his part in Nishi’s revenge plot.
It is a scene that masterfully condenses the films themes about truth and deception, and the juxtaposition of conflicting ideologies. What it reveals through sound and vision is an existential mismatch so profound that the audience experiences the deep rift that is happening not just to these characters but to the country as a whole.
Nishi and Wada are in the constricted environment of the car, the windscreen acts like a cinema screen, and Nishi produces his own soundtrack – a recording of the corporate villains of the company, Dairyu, in a nightclub. We are watching a film within a film. The soundtrack is completely at odds with what we are watching, thus making it more grotesque. A grieving widow and child unknowingly receive the would-be murderers of the man they have lost. The very traditional funeral mount and the national costumes of the women, place them in traditional Japan – a funeral service for a man who believes in the validity of old values – the belief of which has ironically resulted in his attempted suicide and presumed death. The men from Dairyu, their dark suits representing the corporate world, appear reverential and humble, they pray – their deception in the outside world goes unnoticed. However, we hear, with Wada, from this morbid drive-in, the truth. The westernization of Japan and the corporate identity that the executives represent is echoed in the swinging western music of the night club; we see them bow in reverence but hear them laugh about the man’s death and talk about celebrating his demise with drink and women. There is a great sense of corruption here, of guilt and the gullibility of innocence and, of course, of betrayal. In Hamlet, those in power act above the law – as in Macbeth they show a face that hides a much darker self.
Although he is alive, Wada is the ghost at his own funeral. He says, ‘after this I cannot go on living’. The rights have been performed and he is dead in the eyes of the world. Nishi convinces him he has nothing to lose by joining forces with him in his revenge plot. But Wada’s role is that of a ghost, a visitor from the grave exposing the crime committed against him. Like Banquo’s ghost he repeatedly appears to his murderer and drives him out of his mind. His would-be murderer is also one of the men indirectly responsible for the death of Nishi’s father. He is left a gibbering wreck and in his madness, acknowledging his guilt, can only utter ‘Forgive me’.
Kurosawa himself stated:
I wanted to make a film of some social significance. At last I decided to do something about corruption, because it has always seemed to me that graft, bribery, etc., on a public level is the worst crime that there is. These people hide behind the façade of some great organisation like a company or corporation and consequently no one ever really knows how dreadful they are, what awful things they do. Exposing them I thought of as a socially significant act – and so I started the film.
Kurosawa succeeds in exposing the corrupt interlocking of business and government in post-war Japan, but in doing so also taps into what are, sadly, eternal truths. The Bad Sleep Well is one of his lesser-known films but a personal favourite and, like all his work, worth checking out for its stunning film-noirish visuals and storytelling, which are completely cinematic.