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.