In a vacuum, the toxin-caked astringency of Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well would signal a filmmaker who craved for the humanist swagger and fainting individualism of the Wild West of Japan’s past. Peering into Kurosawa’s future – the dueling Technicolor nightmares of Kagemusha and Ran in particular – announces a different tale, however, instead glimpsing a weary, woebegone director whose life had flashed before him and curdled his soul cold. The Bad Sleep Well, positioned in Kurosawa’s canon, is no simple reactionary slice of “they don’t live ’em like they used to” beckoning for a pre-modern era, but a more soul-crushing, shrieking wail of unfettered nihilism that crosses time periods and engulfs any waiting patrons regardless of era. The Bad Sleep Well is not an indication of a cantankerous Kurosawa, but a head-shaking humanist having been collapsed and exhausted by society and left with nothing but the ramshackle tatters of an embittered and embattled mind.
Still, despite warring competition from the waning years of Kurosawa’s seminal career, The Bad Sleep Well may encapsulate Kurosawa’s shrouded late-period cynicism at its purest. Maximally packed with pregnant pageantry to showcase the leering eyes of corporate Japanese society veering into any and all private and public domains, the film begins with the wedding of middleweight corporate type Nishi (Toshiro Mifune) and Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa), whose father Iwabuchi (Masatyuki Mori) was involved in a scandal five years before involving the death of a company employee named Furuya. The nominally ceremonious occasion is disrupted in multitude, not only narratively by the jutting intrusions of suspicious arrests and suggestive cake decorations, but visually via Kurosawa’s masterfully disconcerting deep focus camera jerks that awake a world where eyes are always on the hunt from far off spaces. Kurosawa proves unmatched at invoking the usually discarded z-axis to lure us into a society where someone is always watching from behind.
A wedding speech sounds off like an eerily inauspicious testimony of the damned, with a company man defending the company from preying outside forces rather than focusing on the meeting of kindred spirits at hand; the wedding unfolds like a courtroom, which in turn evinces boardroom like qualities. The phagocyte corporatism of Japanese culture, through Kurosawa’s eyes, has already infected this holy occasion and bloomed foul. Kurosawa’s film will soon protrude into the other board rooms of Japanese business society, a culture inking out its share of the world’s rapid-onset modernity post-WWII (and if the disease of modernity spread post-WWII, no nation’s symptoms were as sudden-onset as Japan’s). Depicted by Kurosawa’s eye, the ascetic above-ground regions of Japanese urban culture pine to evade the war-torn society below (symbolized by Nishi’s ruined munitions factory hideout). But the longitudinal geometry of the high rises, and their ghostly white pallor of the grave, only serves to sever their ties to society and run corporate blood cold.
A mystery unspools when Nishi is revealed to be an undercover sleeper agent of sorts, a modern day Sanjuro with an unwavering determination belied by his sangfroid silence: to infiltrate Iwabuchi’s inner caverns – the secret double-dealing halls of the businesslike labyrinth that was modern Japanese society – and seek revenge for the death of his true father, Furuya. With Nishi’s deep dive into the waiting oblivion of secretive business culture, Kurosawa’s film is less an individualist tale than a concrete slab of scabrous social woe perched firmly in the wheelhouse of the most ignoble of film traditions: the social message picture.
Yet the film works, tremendously so, because Kurosawa harbors no fugitives. This is the usually warm, jovial director in full-on attack-dog mode with a cinematic bite as thick and full-throated as his bark, utilizing percolating, twitchy hard-cuts to noises that thrash into the frame with violent abandon. Filmed in the same classically wide frame scheme Kurosawa gifted to his larger-than-life fables of idol worship and soul-searching (a homage to Kurosawa’s much-loved and much-studied admiration of the American Western), the same latitudinal style is cryptically applied here for something more desperately claustrophobic and modernist. Kurosawa was undoubtedly infatuated with the American Western as a lexicon for understanding Japanese feudal society, but The Bad Sleep Well finds him turning to the most crimson of all American Nightmares – the film noir – for satiation.
Indeed, The Bad Sleep Well sees the genre stirring with deathless ambition years after the American films of the style had gone the way of post-war cynicism: through the wheat thresher of Eisenhower-era forced-positivity. Paranoid and declamatory, the film both asserts the primacy of the American noir’s animus and tacitly indicts Japanese culture for its ruthlessly conniving application of American business practices. The nerve-shattering, palpably perspiring wide expanse of the framing exerts a tactile grip on the film, forgetting the forlorn possibility of the flat expanse of rural society and exploring instead the added potential for clutter and constriction. Characters never exist alone; even in close-up, the space around them draws attention from them, saps their energy as if watching them. Open windows, open doors, slanted alley-ways, and more invade the film, signaling a vulture’s den of potential eyes off to the side. Even the close-ups signal not the primacy of human power but the frailty of people surrounded by an army of potential threats in the background.
Throughout, Kurosawa bleakly exhibits a festering quotient of amorality as the immobile gargoyle Nishi barely bats an eye at his traitorous insurance of the comeuppance of the corporate slaves around him. Nishi stages a false suicide of another company leftover so that the elderly man can secretly prowl around the back alleys of Tokyo and frighten Iwabuchi’s cronies while Nishi nonchalantly whistles in the background like a specter all his own. Kurosawa exposes a certain palpable joy in laying waste to corporate society and terrorizing the henchmen in the darkened city streets with ghoulishly presentational horror shows, a resignation on Kurosawa’s part to the spirit of the noir and a possible acceptance of a world in which bad necessitates bad. This is a far cry from the quaint sainthood and spiritual yearning of Kurosawa’s earlier films, so much so that The Bad Sleep Well plays like a pointed, fiendishly venom-dripping riposte to Kurosawa’s younger self and his more noble cinema. This is an aged, apprehensive Kurosawa testing the waters of his naughtier, more wicked, more menacing self and discovering that he just might like what he finds after all.
As Nishi plummets into his own dark heart with an outlaw’s rampaging outsider ignobility, his fragility is tested, and how much of his soul he is willing to sacrifice to arrive at his goal becomes the focal point of the narrative. The typical “dark and mature” route would be for Nishi to give in to easy nihilism, finding the individual prey to the lecherous systemic predator around him as Nishi slowly fills in the corporate clothes he dons and seems less out of sorts surrounded by company men. Kurosawa plunders darker hearts though, saving Nishi at the final moment when he proves unable to descend to the matter-of-fact greed of his enemies. Then, with a cruel laugh more than a wince, modern technology (which perilously destroys more than one character in the film) reminds him without mercy that you just don’t get in its way. The corporate world could coerce Nishi, we suppose, but Kurosawa shows us that it doesn’t have to; its instruments are legion, and they have a way of getting back to you anyway. If Kurosawa’s later color masterpieces draw into relief his less-than-rosy interpretation of classical Japanese society, The Bad Sleep Well is no surer of the unwavering, unforgiving march of desolate progress.