The Bad Sleep Well (1960)


After The Hidden Fortress, Kurosawa, seeking to make more of the films he himself, not the studios, wanted him to make, started up a new production company. The Bad Sleep Well was the Kurosawa Production Company's first film.

Due to the films anti-bureaucratic subject matter, it is uncertain whether the film would have been made were it not for funding straight from Kurosawa himself.

While The Bad Sleep Well might not be mentioned in the same list of Kurosawa masterpieces like Seven Samurai or Yojimbo, it is no less a masterpiece in its own right.

Not only was The Bad Sleep Well Kurosawa's second of three noir films, it was also the second of three films based on a Shakespeare play. For The Bad Sleep Well, Kurosawa decided to give Shakespeare's Hamlet a modern treatment.

While Kurosawa was forced to change the ending of the film to avoid trouble from the suits at Toho, the co-production company, the film remains a powerful indictment of Japanese corporate corruption and bureaucratic greed.


Weddings are normally joyous occasions, but the wedding that marks the beginning of The Bad Sleep Well is anything but.

Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa) and Nishi (Toshiro Mifune) are getting married. Yoshiko is the daughter of the vice president of the Public Corporation, a company who has become embroiled in an embezzlement scandal. Nishi is seemingly a simple small car dealership owner.

While the case against the men build thanks to an unknown informant, more and more company officials are committing "suicide" in order to ensure that the company's dealings are not exposed.

One man, Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara), is saved from jumping into a volcano by an unlikely savior. Nishi.

We soon learn that Nishi has been plotting revenge against the company that forced his father to jump from a 7th floor window to his death five years earlier.

Nishi, in order to gain access to the company and earn the vice president's trust, married Yoshiko and slowly began to build a case against the top officials.

While he attempts to distance himself from Yoshiko, he begins to have real feelings for her, but just when they are about to finally end up happily together, Yoshiko is forced by her father to give away Nishi's position, thereby ensuring his fate.


While Kurosawa hadn't made a noir film in just over a decade, his feel for the genre is just as evident in The Bad Sleep Well as it was in Stray Dog, and even more so in his final noir film High and Low.

What makes The Bad Sleep Well and Stray Dog different is the scope of the two films. While Stray Dog deals with essentially two individuals on two distinct strata of society, The Bad Sleep Well encompasses a wide range of characters with varying levels of the very noir concept of moral ambiguity.

In Scandal, Kurosawa quite directly attacks the press as bloodthirsty men who will do anything to get a story. In The Bad Sleep Well the press is portrayed in a similar, yet somewhat positive light.

While they do interrupt a wedding ceremony and hound people for a story they serve two important functions in the film. First, they provide the audience with much needed exposition. While this doesn't exactly speak to their character, it is nonetheless important to see that they are serving a greater function than simply printing stories about celebrities and gossip.

Their second function is one within the film world, which is to uncover this story of corruption and print it for the masses to read. Clearly Kurosawa believes the press can do good if they put their mind to it. They are, in fact, a lot like Kurosawa himself. By making the film, or writing the story in a paper, both are doing a service to society by uncovering corruption.

The Bad Sleep Well wasn't just a fun project for Kurosawa; few of his films are made purely for his enjoyment. It, like many others, serves a purpose.

While the characterization of the press does contain slight ambiguity, Kurosawa takes a much harder line with the company officials.

He presents these people as men who would (and do) trick their own children if it meant their bad deeds would not be uncovered. They sell out their own friends and fellow schemers, and embezzle public funds for their own personal gain.

The man with whom Kurosawa feels the most contempt towards is the leader of the group, vice-president Iwabuchi.

Iwabuchi is given a bit more depth than his compatriots. Iwabuchi is more like two people. He is at one moment a family man who cares deeply about his company and its employees. He grieves when telling the press about a man who is believed to have committed suicide but was in fact sent to the grave by the very man who grieves for him.

At another moment he is the soulless bureaucrat, tricking his daughter and sending out death warrants.

While Iwabuchi may have two sides to him, one seemingly good and the other clearly bad, we know that good side is merely a farce, so there is little moral ambiguity involved in his character. He's bad, end of story.

He knows it as well, but is not phased by it. At one point after he drugs his own daughter he is out in a hallway. As he slowly glances to his left he sees his reflection in a mirror and looks away. While he has ample chances to repent, he chooses not to.

Even at the end of the film when his children come to break off their ties with him, he chooses not to chase after them but go to the phone where the next rung on the ladder of corruption is awaiting him.

The films title defines perfectly how Kurosawa chooses to characterize the evil characters. The bad do indeed sleep well, it seems, in Kurosawa's film.

The final, and most ambiguous character that needs mentioning is Nishi. Fueled by revenge, Nishi does whatever it takes to bring down the men who killed his father.

His loyalty, conviction and sense of duty are something to be admired. He has spent every waking moment for five years plotting his revenge. While some might want swift revenge, Nishi has a bit more class than that. He makes his victims suffer and sweat a bit. He gives hints to the police to help their case, he places his own little calling cards throughout the film and he even uses company officials as weapons against themselves.

While no one can fault Nishi for wanting to avenge his fathers death, and the fact they he is exposing high-level corruption is no doubt an admirable task, he is not completely without bad qualities.

He is, after all, only using Yoshiko to get to her father. Even though he does fall for her in the end, his initial intention was not to fall in love or seemingly even care for his wife. He stays out late plotting against her father, he sleeps in a different bed, drinks heavily and barely says a word to her. He does all of this while she makes every attempt to express her love for him.

But alas the great Shakespearean tragedy prevails when Nishi, after finally expressing his love for Yoshiko, who despite everything Nishi has done still loves him, dies at the hands of the man he was trying to bring down.

Nishi himself recognizes his darker side when he says that he himself must become evil to fight evil. Despite his behavior towards Yoshiko, his border-line torture of a bureaucrat and his taunting of a man by dangling him out a window, Kurosawa would like us to believe that the end justifies Nishi's means.

Nishi would not be the same character were it not for the masterful acting of Toshiro Mifune. Mifune, in perhaps his most subdued role, plays Nishi like a volcano. He is ready to explode at any moment, and when he finally does at small intervals throughout the film, his energy bursts off the screen.

Mifune plays Nishi as a man of deep conviction. He is a man on a mission and nothing will get in his way. He is patient. He bides his time. But beneath the calm exterior lies a caged lion. It is the quintessential Mifune role.

Far from Kurosawa's previous Shakespeare adaptation Throne of Blood, whose sets often resembled the sets of a stage, The Bad Sleep Well takes a different approach. It is perhaps because of the way in which Kurosawa picks from bits and pieces of the Hamlet story that the film is not considered a true adaptation of the play.

The film is no less a masterpiece because of this fact. While Hamlet may now don modern clothes and live in a modern society, the themes of the source material still remain, and only help to further the other theme of corporate greed and corruption.

Apart from the moral ambiguity of many of the film's characters, there are other flourishes of film noir in the film. Matching the tone of the movie, the film is very dark. Not much daylight is seen in the film and most of the action occurs in the dead of night.

Another minor occurrence of classic noir is when, during a short montage that significantly speeds up the action, shots of newspaper headlines essentially spelling out the story for the audience are inter-cut with newsreel-like footage of the events the newspapers depict.

Kurosawa himself borrows from his noir background in terms of music. At several points in the film Kurosawa utilizes counterpoint. Again, counterpoint is when the action on screen and the music on the soundtrack don't quite match up emotionally. A sad scene might have happy music and vice-versa.

One example of counterpoint occurs near the end of the film where Nishi is discussing the final stages of his plan with his captive executive Moriyama. He smiles and laughs as he tells him about how glorious it will be when the company is exposed.

All the while the audience knows that Iwabuchi, after tricking his daughter into revealing Nishi's location, is on his way to kill him at that very moment. Despite this, Kurosawa plays a light, happy song over the soundtrack. Instead of hearing what would normally be considered a light and happy song, the audience hears only a song of tragedy.

Like so many of the Kurosawa films before it, The Bad Sleep Well is a call to action. Kurosawa lays it all out there for the audience to see. While at the time he was making a film that commented on the society that he lived in, the themes live on today.

Shakespeare would be proud.

The Hidden Fortress (1958)


In 1977 director George Lucas revolutionized the motion picture industry when he made Star Wars. What most people don't know is that The Hidden Fortress was one of Lucas' primary inspirations for Star Wars.

Although calling Star Wars a re-make of The Hidden Fortress would be an immense stretch, the two films do share common elements.

The plot of Star Wars is very loosely based on The Hidden Fortress. While the film is somewhat told from the perspective of the two lowliest characters (the two peasants and the two droids) and a general is attempting to bring a princess across enemy lines, the circumstances around those events are starkly different in both films.

While Lucas focuses more on the journey of a character of his own creation in Luke Skywalker, Kurosawa stays with the two peasants and sticks to the storyline surrounding the princess attempting to cross enemy lines.

It certainly helps that Lucas sets his movie in outer space while Kurosawa's film is set in 16th-century Japan.

Lucas does however use Kurosawa's trademark wipe transitions, replaces the samurai sword for the lightsaber and it is even rumored that he considered Toshiro Mifune, the general in Kurosawa's film, to play the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.

Apart from its influence on Lucas, the film was important for Kurosawa as well. The Hidden Fortress was Kurosawa's first film in the new TohoScope (similar to CinemaScope) aspect ratio and the new 3-channel Toho Perspecta sound system.

Kurosawa had said that he enjoyed making more pure entertainment-type films after doing his serious pictures. Making The Hidden Fortress after The Lower Depths is a perfect example of this.


The Hidden Fortress begins with two peasants, Matakishi and Tahei (played by long-time Kurosawa veterans Kamatari Fujiwara and Minoru Chiaki), returning from war in shambles.

After escaping enslavement the two men find themselves near a river where they find a stick of gold embedded in some wood. While searching for more gold they come upon another man who begins to follow them.

Matakishi and Tahei tell the man, who claims to be the great General Rokurota Makabe, of their plan to cross through enemy territory. The three men travel to the hidden fortress of the defeated Akuzuki clan. There they come across a young girl who we later learn is Princess Yuki, leader of the Akuzuki clan.

The four of them embark on the trail through enemy territory with 200 bars of gold in tow. Along the way the two peasants make numerous attempts to escape and Princess Yuki rescues a young girl who had been sold into slavery.

Eventually Matakishi and Tahei manage to escape when enemy forces begin to zero in on the princess and the general.

Just before their execution, the enemy general, a friend of General Rokurota, decides to set the princess and her companions free and defect to the Akuzuki clan.

Matakishi and Tahei, who were arrested after they were found with the gold-carrying horses that were let go just before the execution by the enemy general, are let out of prison by the princess.

The princess, having taken over as leader of the Akuzuki clan, tells the men to share the piece of gold she has given them for all they've done, and the two men are set free.


Watching The Hidden Fortress, one would never guess that this was the first time that Kurosawa utilized the new CinemaScope (TohoScope) format. The director possesses the same control and awareness of the frame that any other director would have after dozens of pictures in the format.

Kurosawa had always been very aware of how his films were framed. His intricate staging and camera movements were executed with absolute precision. The new format would prove no different.

The new format was merely a refinement of Kurosawa's old technique. He still utilized his long lenses and long takes, but the acting seems much more free due to the wide screen aspect ratio.

This is evident even from the opening scene. Tahei and Matakishi, walking away from the camera, move from left to right far more freely than they could have with the old format.

These subtle differences in filmmaking technique contribute to the films authenticity.

The feeling of realism is also felt as a result of the cameras range. Perhaps more than any Kurosawa film before it, the camera moves about in its surroundings to showcase the open world Kurosawa has created for the film.

Far removed from the often static and limited space of a film like The Lower Depths, The Hidden Fortress provides the audience with a completely authentic looking world.

The Hidden Fortress also showcases Kurosawa's perfectionism. Kurosawa had said that fellow Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi was the first to demand authentic props and costumes for his films, and that Kurosawa's own crew went about finding the genuine article purely to please the director.

All of this contributes to the feeling that one is actually looking through a window into 16th century feudal Japan.

An important aspect of any film is its pacing. A slow film bores the audience, a fast film is difficult to follow. The key to film pacing is the editing. Kurosawa edited all of his movies himself. If his mastery of the camera is overshadowed by one other area of the filmmaking process, it is his mastery of the editing machine.

Perhaps the greatest example of his feel for pace is the scene in which, after being discovered by enemy soldiers, General Rokurota mounts a horse and pursues the men attempting to alert their camp.

With remarkably fast editing and quick pans, Kurosawa creates an immense feeling of suspense. The scene continues through several cuts before it comes screeching to a halt when Rokurota enters the enemy camp and challenges a fellow general to a duel.

Typical of the chanbara, or sword-play film, the editing and action is slow. A complete reversal from the previous chase scene, Kurosawa creates an entirely different feeling of suspense.

All of this is created not through composition or even acting, but through the mastery of editing.

Kurosawa utilizes one technique that hadn't been present in a film of his since the early 1940s, superimposition. The technique is used to great effect in The Hidden Fortress.

Struggling to keep her composure during difficult times, and realizing what lies before her in terms of rebuilding her clan, Princess Yuki looks out over her land and begins to cry.

Superimposed over her face is the flag of her clan, with the crescent moon perfectly matched across her face. The scene is made all the more powerful by the epic score of long-time Kurosawa composer Masaru Sato.

This scene presents Princess Yuki at her most vulnerable. More than most female characters in Kurosawa films, Princess Yuki possesses quite a bit of emotional depth to her.

Even in the film one of the servants laments to General Rokurota that the princess possesses more qualities of a man than of a woman, and it is perhaps this reason that she is one of the more fully realized Kurosawa female leads.

While her storyline in the end is overshadowed by the peasants tale, Princess Yuki's journey is more divergent from the pure entertainment feel of the film.

Her character has the opportunity, through her travels, to see the world as it is. She witnesses the joys and hardships of her fellow countrymen. She relishes the opportunity to take part in a traditional fire dance and wanders through a village soaking up all she can about the common man.

The greatest example of her bearing witness to the hardship of the commoners (especially the women), she stands with the air of royalty as she looks down on two women toiling away in a kitchen. While she doesn't say it, we know that she feels it is her duty to end this type of injustice, and that she is growing up before our very eyes.

White the princess does not show any outward animosity towards the two peasants, General Rokurota certainly does. Often treating them like lowly troops in a two-man army, the general takes every opportunity to put the two men to work.

He has them cooking food, digging holes and carrying the majority of the load on their backs during their journey. While he does recognize that it was indeed the peasants idea to travel through enemy territory, even he and a fellow servant cannot acknowledge the genius of their plan. "Sometimes even moss can be smart," one man says.

It is often hard to blame the general for his attitude towards the two men. He is, after all, a military man used to giving orders and used to being obeyed. But on top of that the two peasants take every opportunity to either steal the gold for themselves or turn the princess and the general in to the enemy to claim a reward.

While the two peasants provide almost all the comic relief, making them sympathetic characters in the end, one wonders why they continually try to act to their own advantage. While they may be one step away from common thieves, they are still human beings, and any rational human being would realize that they need the help of their companions to get through their adventure alive.

The two peasants do at time realize the error of their ways, but just as easily they fall back into their greedy selves. Even their friendship is called into question at times, despite the fact that they can clearly not function without one another.

This most obvious example of their greed comes near the end of the film where, finally getting across enemy lines, the two promise to stay friends when they return to their village. All promises are negated when the gold-laden horses arrive. The two once again begin to quarrel over who will get how much gold.

Clearly these two have learned nothing from their journey.

It is only at the very end of the film that some semblance of goodness is seen from the characters.

The Hidden Fortress may be Kurosawa's most entertaining film. It is a first-rate action-adventure story that is as entertaining today as it must have been when it was released.

While the film is mainly pure entertainment, there are subtle themes of greater importance that are felt throughout the film. Without focusing too much on them, Kurosawa creates the perfect blend of entertainment and art.

The back and forth between serious to entertaining films would continue for the next few films for Kurosawa. These films only further showcase the director's accessibility and love for the medium.

The Lower Depths (1957)


For his next film Kurosawa chose once again to translate material from the stage to the screen.

This time Kurosawa would choose something not from Shakespeare but from another Russian source, in the form of Maxim Gorky's play The Lower Depths.

Kurosawa's film of the same name is set in mid-19th century Edo (now Tokyo). Just as Kurosawa saw similarities between 16th century Japan and the world of Macbeth when he made Throne of Blood, he too saw similarities between Gorky's Russia in the early 1900s and his own country in the 1800s.

According to the film's opening titles, it was also an entry into the 1958 Cultural Festival.


The Lower Depths takes place in a small Japanese tenement in Edo, Japan. A myriad of colorful characters inhabit a small rundown shack owned by an ill-tempered landlord who lives next door in a much nicer home with his wife Oguni and her sister Okayo.

The characters who inhabit the shack range from an old actor and prostitute to a tinkerer and self-proclaimed former samurai. The most revered and respected among the group is a thief named Sutekichi (Toshiro Mifune).

While Sutekichi has had an ongoing affair with Oguni, the landlord's wife, he has recently become enamored by Okayo, Oguni's sister.

Oguni sees this as her chance to be free of her husband. She tells Sutekichi that if he kills him, she will ensure that Okayo will be presented to Sutekichi "with a ribbon".

This subplot merely serves to propel the film along. The real story is in the other inhabitants of the shanty.

Their lives have become mundane. Some work with the hope of earning enough to leave, some merely sit and let the world do what it will to them. Some even die. But everything is shaken up when an old man arrives seeking a place to live for a while.

The man some call Grandpa begins to offer words of wisdom to those who will listen. He tells the actor of a temple where he can rid himself of his addiction to alcohol. He listens to the prostitute when she tells him about a man who sees her for who she really is. He even urges Sutekichi to take Okayo and start a new life somewhere.

In the end Sutekichi ends up accidentally killing the landlord while trying to protect Okayo. Okayo believes her sister and Sutekichi are in it together and has them both arrested.

While all this is happening the old man has flees (other characters hint that he himself is on the run from the law).

Life finally returns to normal for all the other inhabitants of the shanty, except one. The actor, after learning that the old man's words were merely lies to help ease his pain, hangs himself on a cliff near the town.


Because of The Lower Depths' simplistic setting and more character-driven plot, Kurosawa was able to more easily adapt his film making to come closer to the theater.

By utilizing the multiple cameras that he had been using since Seven Samurai, the actors could move about and perform with much more ease.

The film contains only two locations: inside the shack and just outside of it. The inside of the shanty itself feels like a stage. Characters come and go freely from off screen, the action continues without any cuts and the shots are often quite long compared even when compared to some of Kurosawa's other films.

There are only a few fades in the film that signal an elongated passage of time.

While Kurosawa clearly modeled the indoor location to look like a stage, he takes full use of the power of film in the outdoor location.

In almost every shot outside the shanty, characters are shot from a low angle. This could not be more important to the film.

The very first scene in the film is a 360-degree pan around the walls of the two houses. The camera finally settles on two children who are dumping trash into the pit.

"It's just an old rubbish heap," says one of the children. The world clearly does not care about these people and does not recognize their existence. During a time of peace (which this time period was) there are still those in "the lower depths" that are forgotten.

Throughout the film when characters are walking around the two houses, almost half the frame is taken up by the top of the pit and the sky.

These people are always looking up. There lies their way out, but although it is so close, it is still unattainable.

Every character in the film seems to be all too aware of their situation in life. While only the tinkerer believes that his work will one day earn him enough money to escape the shanty, even his hopes are slashed when he must pay for his wife's funeral.

"How can you go to hell if you're already there," one man says.
"Lay off the stupid dreams," says another.

While the characters in the film are keenly aware that money is the only way to get anywhere, some have negative attitudes toward education. The actor remarks that it is with one's own natural talent that they succeed in life.

Not even Sutekichi, who makes far more than any of the other men, is able to leave the squalor of the shanty.

Hope comes in the form of the old man. Dressed in a white kimono like a sort of guardian angel, the old man descends upon the inhabitants and begins to observe and interact with them. He sees the tinkerer's wife through her final days and gives advice to those who need it.

Sutekichi is on to the old man from the beginning, telling him he believes he is a fine liar.

Even when the old man does try to help those around him, many brush him off, seemingly content to live on drinking and living in their lower depths. Those who do listen only end up in jail or dead in the end. The old man, the others say, only lied to those who he felt were beyond hope.

One of the most integral aspects of characterization for Kurosawa seems to be in the backgrounds of characters. Far more than simply what they appear to be on the surface, Kurosawa gives his characters histories that contribute to who they are and how they act in the film.

The prostitute, destined to a life of prostitution, is seen daydreaming throughout the film. She imagines a man who sees her for who she is and doesn't care about her prostituting ways. She takes to the old man, and in the end almost does kill herself, but eventually does return.

The actor, who frequently tells those around him of his glory days on the stage, just as frequently forgets the songs he used to sing. He dreams of getting sober and returning to the stage, but tragically kills himself.

The former samurai tells the others of his family's high standing while serving the shogunate. His feeling of superiority translates into his bossiness towards others.

Each character has their dreams. Dreams that we can relate to even today.

It is through of characters like these that the film becomes easier to relate to, and the ending that much more tragic.

Kurosawa said that all of his movies deal with essentially the same question: Why can't people be happier? And why can't they be happier together"

The Lower Depths is certainly a case where Kurosawa is asking this question.

In the beginning it seems that everyone is at war with everyone else, despite their shared poverty. At the end of the film, however, they all share in the same drinking song.

Damn, damn it all
Let the heavens rain down coins
Money buys your fate in hell
Money buys you Buddha's mercy
This dimwit fool is broke

This song sums up all too well the theme of the movie. Kurosawa once again ends his film on a pessimistic note. He shows us that the world is not the happy place we would like it to be, and there are those like these people who live day in and day out without the hope of a happy life.