Two years after he made the comic adventure story The Hidden Fortress, Akira Kurosawa came out, a much darker film. The first movie that was released by the Kurosawa Production Company, The Bad Sleep Well is such a brutal attack on the Japanese corporate elite that it makes Oliver Stone’s Wall Street look like CNN’s Money Matters. Not surprisingly, it’s had less influence on American cinema than Kurosawa’s samurai films. While the Japanese corporate elite was still vulnerable to criticism 15 years after losing the war, a remake in the United States with the same anti-capitalist bite would get shut down in a week.
Like The Godfather, The Bad Sleep Well opens with a wedding, but where Francis Ford Coppola romanticizes his gangster capitalists, Kurosawa goes right for the jugular. Vice President Iwabuchi is no courtly Vito Corleone. The family is not outside of the corporation. Quite the contrary, little does the bride Yoshiko Iwabuchi know, but the sins of her father have already been visited upon her in the form of Kōichi Nishi, her father’s secretary and husband to be played by Toshiro Mifune.
We also notice a difference between Japanese crony capitalism circa 1960 and American crony capitalism circa 2015. Where American newspapermen are part of the Ivy League upper-middle-class and, therefore, tend to protect and identity with corporate America, the journalists covering the wedding at the beginning of The Bad Sleep Well are blue collar cynics. They have no illusions that the people they’re writing about are evil, that vast amounts of taxpayer money are being funneled through the “Public Corporation” (think Halliburton) into the pockets of its senior executives. The journalists and paparazzi act as a sort of Greek chorus, filling us in on the characters and the plot. Five years earlier, the corporation’s three senior executives, Vice President Iwabuchi, Administrative Officer Moriyama, and Contract Officer Shirai had left another construction company after a bribery scandal. For awhile it looked bad, but, at the crucial moment, a mid-level executive, Assistant Chief Furuya, had jumped out of a 7th floor window, burying most of the evidence with his own death.
In other words, if Japanese crony capitalism doesn’t need an American style lapdog press, then it’s at least partly because Japanese corporate executives will commit suicide to cover up for their superiors. The Code of Bushido has been enlisted into the service of crony capitalism, graft, and the theft of public money. What’s more, as we learn later on in the movie, Kōichi Nishi is the illegitimate son of Assistant Chief Furuya. He’s married the physically handicapped Yoshiko Iwabuchi to get close to her father. Not only is Japanese capitalism deeply corrupt, the man who would bring it all down has begun his career as a revolutionary by seducing, and lying to, an emotionally vulnerable and innocent young woman. Not only is something rotten in the state of Japan. Everything’s rotten.
But Kōichi Nishi quickly gets to work. At the wedding, the police had actually gone in and arrested two men, Miura, an accountant, and Wada, a public corporation Vice President. Miura jumps in front of a truck before the police can get any real information, but Nishi rescues Wada, who had intended to kill himself by jumping into a live volcano. The corporate class of Japan in 1960s, not being samurai, but timid little men who do as they’re told, Iwabuchi, Moriyama, and Shirai all think that Wada had obeyed their orders and jumped to his death. This is exactly what Nishi needs. After the papers publish stories on Wada’s suicide, Nishi takes Wada to his own funeral. The sight of the elaborate ritual, along with a recording of Iwabuchi, Moriyama, and Shirai laughing about his death convinces Wada — who knows where all the bodies are buried —to go along with his Nishi’s plans to bring the company down.
At first it all goes according to plan. Wada, like the ghost in Hamlet, appears at strategic moments to drive Contract Officer Shirai out of his mind. Nishi, and his childhood friend, Yoshiko Nishi, from who he’s borrowed the name “Nishi” as cover, take Shirai to a bombed-out munitions factory where the two men had worked as teenagers during the war. They start to gather evidence. Then they kidnap Administrative Officer Moriyama and take him to the same bombed out factory. They lock him in a cell and refuse to feed him until he tells them where he’s hidden all the money he’s stolen from the taxpayers.
But then a terrible thing happens. Kōichi Nishi remembers he has a conscience. Kidnapping, torture, attempted murder, lying to an innocent woman, he begins to realize that he’s no better than the men he’s trying to bring down. What’s more, Vice President Iwabuchi is evil in every way but one. He loves his daughter. Nishi is not ruthless enough to bring down the Public Corporation. He makes a fatal mistake. He forgets to kill Wada, or at least guard him closely, after he’s gotten the information he needs. Wada, who has also been having attacks of conscience, can’t bear to see Yoshiko Iwabuchi lied to. So he tells her the whereabouts of her husband, and it’s the innocent young woman who betrays her husband’s whereabouts to her father. It’s as dark, and realistic, and ending as you can imagine. Corrupt, crony capitalism has proven invincible. The vast herd of innocent sheep, as embodied in Yoshiko Iwabuchi, have propped it up in the end. We don’t even get the satisfaction of seeing Vice President Iwabuchi, like King Claudius from Hamlet, a clear influence on The Bad Sleep Well, drink his own poison. The film ends with Yoshiko Nishi, the film’s Horatio, giving the angriest “goodnight sweet prince” speech ever made.
A final note: The Bad Sleep Well is a very long film with many characters and an intricate, convoluted plot. You will probably have to watch it twice. Watch it twice. Like a good novel, it takes work to get into, but, once you do, the rewards are substantial. What’s more, it’s also a master-class in black and white photography, framing, composition, and lighting. Almost every shot from The Bad Sleeps Well could be enlarged and hung up in a museum. I can’t even imagine critiquing the film’s cinematography. It’s fully the equal of anything John Ford’s ever done. And it’s not only about how the film looks. The clean, elegant, black and white setting expresses the seductive appeal of a stable, disciplined, authoritarian social order. If the plot blows the lid off corrupt, crony capitalism, then the film’s aesthetics show us exactly why the sheeple, both in Japan and the USA, will defend it so tenaciously.