The Bad Sleep Well (1960)


*. Victory is one of my favourite Joseph Conrad novels, though it’s not very well known. It’s the kind of book that makes people say of it that it has some of Conrad’s best writing and some of his worst.
*. And so with The Bad Sleep Well. This is a movie I really love . . . most of. There are passages, especially the opening wedding ceremony, that I think are among the best things Kurosawa ever did. But at the same time, this has never been one of his most popular films.
*. Why? I think the far-fetched story alienates some people. It was the result of a collaboration among five screenwriters (Kurosawa being one), and apparently a lot of rewrites were done on the fly. As it stands, it’s two and a half hours of a grotesque revenge plot involving secret illegitimate children, identity swapping, and scaring people insane with ghosts.


*. Does it have much to do with Hamlet? Not to my eye, though the business with the wedding cake can be seen as a version of the Mouse Trap (only it can hardly be a tool for getting the guilty board members to expose themselves, since Nishi is clearly already convinced of their culpability in his father’s death). Aside from that, the only thing it really borrows is the notion of a son avenging his father’s murder.
*. Admittedly, this is a storyline that isn’t all that common. Usually we have heroes avenging the murder of their spouses or children. Not often a father. And it’s even a bit of a stretch here, as Nishi wasn’t very close to his dad.


*. Kurosawa was going contemporary after several films set back in samurai days. But how feudal is his contemporary Japan? The Public Corporation is like a fiefdom, demanding a superhuman level of loyalty.


*. This, in turn, leads us to a bureaucratized evil. You even get the exclamation/excuse that in doing such bad things the men in suits were “just following orders.” It’s a murderously corrupt system, and the Corporation is clearly a quasi-criminal enterprise (it could have been called the Syndicate or the Organization), so in the end who’s responsible?
*. It’s beautifully photographed, with brilliant framing that is perhaps only a bit overly formal. It’s hard to say though as this was very much the custom in what we think of now as the art house cinema of the day, and the layout of Japanese homes, with all their screens and grids, exaggerates the effect even more.


*. Even a location like the ruins of the munitions factory is invested with a kind of cinema vérité poetry. And it’s crammed with symbolism too, from the bunker to the smokestack to the beam that separates Nishi from Yoshiko.


*. To what extent is this a black comedy or satire? I honestly don’t know, figuring that I’m probably losing a lot in translation. But the score seems to strike a comic note at several points where I didn’t expect it.
*. I didn’t even recognize Toshiro Mifune. Did he gain a lot of extra weight for this role? And he’s hiding behind that blank corporate façade perfectly.
*, Kurosawa thought it was too far ahead of its time, that he made it too soon. That may have been true in Japan. I think it would have worked for an American audience in 1960, and it holds up very well today.
*. The ending is particularly ambiguous given the title. Will Iwabuchi sleep well, given he didn’t sleep at all the night before? Or has he murdered sleep? You could argue that the alienation of his children is a form of punishment, but does he care? Or does he care about the corporation’s welfare more? I take this latter position, which makes the ending particularly dark. His kids are gone, but he has to answer that phone, literally bowing to head office’s authority.
*. As for his kids, Yoshiko and Tatsuo, what exactly are they going to do? He’s a drunk and she’s a cripple. They’re both adults but don’t seem to have jobs while still living with their dad. So where are they going?


*. But to return to a point I raised earlier, who is head office? In the Kurosawa documentary included with the Criterion DVD the caller is referred to simply as a “great evil.” So somebody higher up the corporate ladder? The government? Whatever it is, I like it that we’re not told, and that we never hear the voice on the other end of the line.


*. When I was a kid I had one of those Weird Tales-style comic books that told the story of a corporate climber who kept moving up the ranks, but always being put off from seeing the big boss by a secretary posted outside the boss’s office. When the man on the rise finally takes over the company and is allowed to enter that office he finds it’s only a black void that he will now presumably be trapped in for eternity. You could think of it as a corner tomb, or a portal to hell. But all it really was, was a perfectly black frame.
*. I was reminded of that comic at the end of this movie. Is the great evil just the fact that there’s no directing intelligence at all? That the bureaucracy, the corporation, the system, is all there is?


8 thoughts on “The Bad Sleep Well (1960)


    When Joe Conrad wrote Escape to Victory, he peaked; that bit with Sylvester Stallone saving the last penalty was as good as it would get for his writing. Michael Caine advised him to never write again, and from all accounts, he did not.

    1. Alex Good

      I think it’s because I have such a sunny and joyful disposition all the rest of the time that I need to balance it with my movie-watching.

      1. Bookstooge

        I’ve noticed that. When I think of Alex Good(er), I think rainbows, sunshine, unicorns and kittens!
        Glad to know my analysis was spot on.

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