The Modern Netherworld of Akira Kurosawa’s ‘The Bad Sleep Well’

The Bad Sleep Well Movie Film

“I don’t hate enough,” says Nishi (Toshiro Mifune), condensing the protracted poetry of his Shakespearean progenitor into a blunt excoriation of his own shortcomings in revenge. There’s no place for the beauty of Shakespeare’s words in The Bad Sleep Well, Akira Kurosawa’s loose neo-noir adaptation of Hamlet — the labyrinthine language of the play simply wouldn’t survive in the director’s hardboiled world of terse aggression and silent decay. Nishi is Prince Hamlet bereft of his sublime deliberation, a hushed avenger who rages against the avaricious corporate overlords who coerced his father into jumping to his death before he could implicate them in a scandal. In his pursuit of justice, Nishi cold-bloodedly marries Yoshiko (Kyōko Kagawa), the handicapped daughter of the malign Vice President Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori) — infiltrating the culpable corporation as secretary and son-in-law, orchestrating his scheme from within.

The Bad Sleep Well has consistently found itself buried beneath the weighty pantheon of Kurosawa’s more widely recognised classics, but its shrieks of anguish are still among the director’s loudest and most violently impactful social statements. Kurosawa was rarely more bitter and dejected than he is here, crafting a sprawling noir tragedy from Shakespeare’s text, grappling desperately with identity in the nightmare of faceless modernity.

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The Bad Sleep Well Movie Film

Kurosawa was, of course, no stranger to Shakespeare — three years before The Bad Sleep Well, he’d plunged Macbeth into the gruesome mire of feudal Japan in Throne of Blood. There, he’d worked largely within the original framework of the Scottish Play, preserving its structure, characterisations and themes. No such fidelity can be found in The Bad Sleep Well, which from its very opening scene revels in disassembling and corroding Shakespeare’s material. Hamlet’s play-within-a-play gambit is relocated from the third act to the first, and is reimagined as a corporate wedding reception, during which farcical commotion lacerates the pristine surface of capitalist society and reveals the sickness beneath. Police arrive to arrest Wada (Kamatari Fujirawa), a mercilessly scapegoated company official; news reporters, hoping to land a scoop on an unfolding scandal, descend upon the scene like vultures drawn to carrion; Tatsuo (Tatsuya Mihashi), the brother of the bride, dramatically declares in his speech that he’ll kill Nishi should Yoshiko be mistreated. As a final flourish, an elaborate extra wedding cake emerges in the shape of the office building from which Nishi’s father was forced to jump. As the chaos mounts, Hamlet’s surveillance strategy becomes a spectacle of acidulous comedy — the hero says nothing, the villainous kingpins are made to look like stooges, and calamity reigns.

The wedding ceremony is Kurosawa at his most playful, but that lightness of touch soon evaporates. True to the spirit of film noir, most of the filmmaker’s twists on Hamlet are more than merely corrosive –they’re cruel. Nishi isn’t haunted by the ghost of his father as Hamlet is — instead, Nishi himself does the haunting, saving Wada from a suicidal jump into a volcano, only to then manipulate him into returning from the grave as a hallucinatory instrument of justice. In nocturnal sequences reminiscent of Jacques Tourneur’s sinister shadow plays, the resurrected Wada haunts narrow lanes, his figure illuminated intermittently by car headlights, subjecting his backstabbing former colleagues to a spectral form of psychological torture. Wada takes no gratification from his role — this is Nishi’s idea of revenge, not his. Finding his task deplorable and his victims pitiable, but too feeble to meaningfully object, Wada is reduced to a sacrificial offering at the altar of Nishi’s justice.

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The Bad Sleep Well Movie Film

An even ghastlier fate awaits Shirai (Kō Nishimura), one of Iwabuchi’s closest lieutenants, whom Nishi frames for embezzlement and then offers a choice of suicide methods — jump from the seventh floor of an office building or drink poison. Kurosawa’s inspiration here, of course, is the death of Claudius, stabbed and forced to drink poison by Hamlet. But there’s a deeper layer of savagery to Nishi’s double onslaught. Shirai isn’t allowed such an easy, merciful exit — Nishi only briefly dangles him from the window, and the poison that he’s forced to drink is actually just pure whisky, but the shock is too much for him, and he loses his mind. Claudius dies, but Shirai lives on in muttering madness. Nishi’s fight against institutional evil comes without a conventional body count, but his victims instead suffer fates that are perhaps worse than death.

Punishing the guilty Shirai is one thing, but ruthlessly exploiting the innocent Yoshiko is another. Nishi has married a woman whom he doesn’t love but who loves him, and in an inversion of Shakespeare’s play — in which Laertes is concerned that Hamlet will sexually abuse Ophelia — Tatsuo is angered by the lack of physical intimacy between Nishi and Yoshiko, who sleep in separate rooms. Hamlet’s flagrant vocal misogyny goes unuttered, instead manifested first in subterfuge, as Nishi uses Yoshiko as a conduit into the corporation, and then in neglect, as he leaves her to wither in isolation. “A baby like you can’t doubt people,” says Tatsuo of his sister, and indeed Yoshiko loves blindly and unconditionally, blissfully unaware of her father’s egregious crimes, and entirely unsuspicious of Nishi’s coldness. Equipped with none of the shrewdness, wit or sultry villainy of a femme fatale, she’s an outlier ripe for mistreatment from both sides in an unforgiving milieu.

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The Bad Sleep Well Movie Film

Nishi’s brutality is always highlighted but never judged by Kurosawa. Nishi himself does the judging, wondering all the time if his vendetta is rotting his soul. His motivation — to lay bare corporate evils inflicted upon innocent people — is certainly righteous, but the shadow of ethical dubiety lingers constantly over his methods. “It’s not easy hating evil,” he says, “you have to stoke your own fury until you become evil yourself.” In this tussle with the underbelly of his own psyche, Nishi echoes the protagonist of Stray Dog, an earlier film noir by Kurosawa. In that film, Mifune plays Murakami, a young Tokyo police detective whose gun is stolen and used in a series of violent crimes. Venturing into the city’s underworld in order to retrieve his weapon, he finds an entire ecosystem of indigence and criminality — the blasted and broken in society, the disaffected and marginalised, dependent on delinquency for survival.

When Murakami eventually manages to isolate the perpetrator’s identity, he finds himself staring uncomfortably into the looking glass. The thief is Yusa (Isao Kimura), a destitute war veteran who’s resorted to crime; a discarded by-product of conflict, left to stew and atrophy in aimlessness and alienation. Murakami, himself a veteran, finds that as his pursuit escalates, his identification with his target grows, until the boundary between policeman and criminal completely deteriorates. Stray Dog, like many of the best noirs, turns detection into reflection, as the investigative process coils back upon itself. The police procedural mutates into a navigation of personal and national suffering.

Murakami’s Tokyo reverberates throughout Nishi’s lugubrious urban Elsinore, in that the possibility of uncomplicated heroism has long since abandoned both places — doing what’s right must, on some level, involve drawing upon an inner darkness. Just as Murakami must confront what he might’ve become, Nishi must confront what he might still become, and how uninhibited hatred for his father’s killers might still contort him into an unrecognisably despicable form.

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The Bad Sleep Well Movie Film

Yet what else should Nishi feel but hatred? Against an institution so diabolical, there can surely be no response more appropriate. The corporate system is an odious machine, in which power correlates absolutely with corruption, and those at the apex are safeguarded by a community of slavish subordinates, who’ve been conditioned to commit suicide in order to prevent themselves from implicating their superiors. Such a system can only operate if institutional values are fully internalised — it can’t be sustained if individuals behave as individuals. In a small but significant moment, Moriyama (Takashi Shimura), another of Iwabuchi’s lieutenants, flinches with horror as his boss announces his intention to murder Shirai, only for that horror to then be instantaneously smothered by silent and total assent. Corporate ideology quickly quells any momentary revolt of personality.

Kurosawa was all too familiar with this mass annihilation of selfhood, which turns men into creatures of unquestioning obedience. Reflecting upon his experience of Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II, Kurosawa wrote in his autobiography that “If the Emperor had not delivered his address urging the Japanese people to lay down their swords — if that speech had been a call instead for the Honourable Death of the Hundred Million — those people on that street in Sōshigaya probably would have done as they were told and died. And probably I would have done likewise. The Japanese see self-assertion as immoral and self-sacrifice as the sensible course to take in life. We were accustomed to this teaching and had never thought to question it.”

It’s fitting, then, that Kurosawa stages The Bad Sleep Well’s endgame at a flattened ammunition factory; a stygian relic of wartime, littered with dust and debris. The terrain recalls the lopsided, shattered Vienna of Carol Reed’s The Third Man, with both mutilated film noir landscapes bearing the gashing wounds of national trauma, emblems of the impossibility of recovery and wholeness. Here amongst the ruins, Nishi establishes a hideout with Itakura (Takeshi Katō), his childhood friend and accomplice, and holds Moriyama prisoner in a dismal bunker, hoping to extract the final evidence that he needs to tear down the monolith.

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The Bad Sleep Well Movie Film

And yet, devastatingly, the vicious machine that seems to be on the brink of collapse still somehow finds a way of preserving itself. Iwabuchi manages to manipulate Yoshiko into betraying the location of the hideout, and then drugs her to prevent any possible intervention. The avenger who’s been tightening the nooses suddenly finds himself on the scaffold — Nishi and Wada are murdered off-screen, without drama or excitement, and all material evidence is destroyed. Hamlet’s revenge is left unfulfilled, and his parting plea for Horatio to tell his story is injected with bleak irony. To tell Nishi’s story is to present a case without proof, leaving the surviving Itakura excruciatingly impotent, knowing the truth but unable to do anything with it. Iwabuchi loses his family, Yoshiko becomes deranged and Tastuo disowns his father but consolidates his position as chief underling to a powerful politician. In the end, that’s all that matters. Destroying your children is a small price to pay for clinging to the same sorry rung on the hierarchical ladder.

So, the bad sleep well, and will continue to sleep well — this is among Kurosawa’s most despairing conclusions. In this capitalist netherworld, righteousness and individual heroics are devoured by indifference and organised inhumanity. The Bad Sleep Well begins with mocking laughter and ends with unmitigated forlornness. “Good night, sweet prince,” says Horatio to the dying Hamlet, “and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” There’ll be no good night, and the angels have already flown away.

Cian Tsang (@CianHHTsang) studied English Literature at UCL, and is now a writer based in London. He spends most of his time listening to the Twin Peaks soundtrack.