The Bad Sleep Well

Akira Kurosawa, 1960

Kurosawa would adapt the work of Shakespeare to the screen three times over the course of his career resulting in three of his best works. The two that would receive more attention would be the first, Throne of Blood an adaptation of Macbeth, and his take on King Lear, 1985’s Ran. With their historical setting these were obvious choices to make the transposition to the feudal Japan that Kurosawa would bring to the screen through his most famous works. Lesser known, and much more loosely adapted than those previously mentioned, is his take on HamletThe Bad Sleep Well.
It is a loose adaptation firstly as a result of Kurosawa’s choice to set it in contemporary Japan, and for the replacement of kings and queens with their modern equivalent, the rich chairmen of giant corporations. The film follows the story of Nishi (played by Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune) as he marries the daughter of wealthy industrialist Iwabuchi in an attempt to avenge the death of his father, of which he believes Iwabuchi and his corporation are to blame. It’s primarily in the driving motive of the main character that the plot similarities are found, however there are flourishes reminiscent of the play to be found elsewhere, for example the brilliant opening sequence. Whereas in Hamlet
 the protagonist stages a play referencing his fathers murder, watching for the kings reaction to the scene to ascertain whether he did commit the crime, here Nishi has a cake delivered to Iwabuchi at Nishi’s own wedding reception, it is shaped like the company headquarters with a rose marking the window from which his father met his death. Upon it’s arrival the reactions of the senior executives lead anyone watching, including the paparazzi who linger around this scandal ridden company, to the realisation that they are most definitely implicated.

This opening sequence highlights one of Kurosawa’s real strengths as a director, his ability to balance so much of a film around a single locale. As one of the paparazzi at the wedding observes it’s like watching ‘a one act play’ and with Kurosawa’s ability to condense such a large amount of story into one scene, along with his penchant for framing all his characters within the one shot, it does have its grounds in theatre, somewhere from his choice of source material he clearly takes inspiration. This on screen theatre is seen throughout various works of Kurosawa, examples being the apartment sequence that takes up a large part of High and Low or the extensive wake sequence in Ikiru. Large amounts of story and character exposition occur purely through the dialogue, the performances, and the fantastic use of the score managing to build the tension.

Kurosawa had tackled corruption before, most notably in Ikiru although that was on a much smaller scale simply regarding one council office. Here he takes it right to the top with top boss Iwabuchi receiving anonymous instruction over the phone, with it only hinted at in the mildest way that this caller is some political figure and that the whole system is corrupt through to the top (a controversial suggestion Kurosawa was only able to make through financing the film by establishing his own production company). Between every high budget epic like Seven Samurai or The Hidden Fortress Kurosawa would punctuate with these smaller more personal ‘message’ films such as The Bad Sleep Well or his anti nuclear film I Live in Fear. It’s a great approach and it’s influence is apparent in the careers of directors such as Spielberg and Scorsese with their ‘one for them, one for me’ philosophy. Despite being less grandiose these films stand as some of Kurosawa’s best, the performances from his usual collaborators such as Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura never fall short of greatness, and the widescreen cinematography, taking its cues from film noir with its use of light and shadow, give the film as epic a feel as ever.

words by pete bond.