To celebrate the upcoming release of my book, Akira Kurosawa: A Viewer’s Guide, due out Dec. 15 from Rowman & Littlefield — preorder here! — I’ll be doing capsule reviews all month covering every single Kurosawa film and posting (very) brief excerpts. These will be short impressions and recommendations, nothing more. For a full, detailed analysis of each, grab the book!
The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
Following a string of period pieces, Akira Kurosawa jumped back to contemporary Japan for his look at corporate corruption, The Bad Sleep Well. It’s been called by some a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, though to be frank, I think that’s a stretch. Regardless, it’s a slow burning look at the way in which corruption can ruin lives.
More interesting than its look at the way in which business bigwigs can pull the strings of people great and small, however, is how this movie looks at how easy it is to sink into your own brand of moral decay. Lies with dogs, as they say, and you’ll get fleas. From the book:
Toshiro Mifune’s goals seem noble enough. Exposing the murderous corruption of high level executives is a cause the audience can stand behind. So, too, is avenging your father’s death. Yet Nishi has himself committed a string of crimes in order to reach this point in his plan. Kidnapping, assault, theft. … He’ll even have ruined a woman’s life in order to satisfy his need for vengeance.
The film inches along at a deliberate pace, revealing information to the audience at a crawl. Coming on the heels of brisk masterworks like The Hidden Fortress and (the nearly four-hour long) Seven Samurai, The Bad Sleep Well suffers by comparison. Film scholars largely adore it, and it’s understandable why — not only is it dense with rich themes, but scenes like an early wedding sequence are great examples of Kurosawa’s power as a director — but casual fans should steel themselves for something decidedly more cerebral than other Kurosawa films from this period. It’s good stuff, but if you want excitement, look elsewhere. This is a slow burn.
Check out my upcoming book for a full analysis exploring this film’s ideas, themes, good points, and bad
You can get the movie in excellent edition by the Criterion Collection.