Friday, July 24, 2020

The Bad Sleep Well

The Bad Sleep Well (1960, Japan, Akira Kurosawa)

“This was the first film of Kurosawa Productions, my own unit which I run and finance myself. From this film on, I was responsible for everything. Consequently, when I began, I wondered what kind of film to make. A film made only to make money did not appeal to me - one should not take advantage of an audience. Instead, I wanted to make a movie of some social significance. At last I decided to something about corruption, because it has always seemed to me that graft, bribery, etc., at the public level, is one of the worst crimes that there is. These people hide behind the facade of some great company or corporation and consequently no one knows how dreadful they really are, what awful things they do. Exposing them was, I thought, a socially significant act - and so I started the film.” — The Films of Akira Kurosawa by Donald Richie, page 140

The Bad Sleep Well is an extraordinary film that covers corruption from two aspects, one from inside the depths and the other from the newspaper reporting angle. Modern day news reporting isn’t what it once used to be and the distortion of facts in news reports has gotten worse in the six decades since this movie came out. Kurosawa covers the celebrity gossip aspect in Scandal and some of that gossip media coverage is covered in The Bad Sleep Well, especially the opening moments, but the film is highly relevant from a journalistic aspect because it shows how news can be distorted. Getting to the facts requires a reporter to probe deep beneath the surface and get past the news conferences that companies hold.

In discussing the film’s treatment, Donald Richie mentions that “..Kurosawa wanted to expose the corruption of those in the highest places in Japan.” In Kurosawa’s own words: “As early as Drunken Angel “the critics had started calling me a ‘journalistic’ director, meaning that I interested myself in ‘timely themes’. Actually, I have always thought of film as a kind of journalism if journalism means a series of happenings, usually contemporary, which can be shaped into a film. At the same time, I know that a timely subject does not make an interesting film, if that is all that it has. One ought to make a film in such a way that the original idea, no matter where it comes from, remains the most important thing, and the feeling that one felt at that moment of having the idea is important. Timely, then, in my sense, is the opposite of sensational.” — The Films of Akira Kurosawa by Donald Richie, page 140

There is also a Shakespearean reading on the film with parallels to that of Hamlet that Richie discusses and reading those elements in Richie’s book helps see the film with a fresh angle.

The Bad Sleep Well
was released 3 years before High and Low and the two films are opposite sides of the same coin shown from a different perspective: The Bad Sleep Well is the inside view that shows us the kidnapper’s thinking and reasons while in High and Low, the audience is always on the outside until the film’s final moments when we get an insight into the kidnapper’s rationale. Both films are also variations on the rich-poor class divide approached from different angles but in both, it is the rich that get their way and can dictate the media coverage. However, The Bad Sleep Well is far more brutal and has no shades of happiness because it aligns itself with a character who never gets justice. There is some playful music in the final 30 minutes in the interaction between Takashi Shimura’s Moriyama character and Toshirô Mifune’s Nishi. But that playful music gives us false hope because shortly after that music, any hope is extinguished and the film dives into a dark territory. Of course, any other ending would not do justice to the film’s title.

A ranking change in the recent viewing of Kurosawa’s films:

1. Seven Samurai (1954)
2. The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
3. Ikiru (1952)
4. High and Low (1963)
5. Rashomon (1950)
6. Red Beard (1965)
7. Scandal (1950)
8. Stray Dog (1949)
9. Yojimbo (1961)
10. Drunken Angel (1948)

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