The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

August 9, 2009 § Leave a comment

Loosely based on Hamlet, but set in the Japanese corporate world, The Bad Sleep Well is one of the films by Akira Kurosawa that doesn’t appear to be as celebrated as some others. The director is a legendary one — Kurosawa made thirty films that have had a far-reaching influence in the film world, including various Samurai films I’ve found particularly memorable. Seven Samurai (1954) about a small band of samurai deciding to defend a village from bandits was translated into gunslingers and remade as The Magnificent Seven (1960), even as Yojimbo (1961) was remade as A Fistful of Dollars (1964). The Hidden Fortress (1958) is a film George Lucas acknowledges as an influence — there’s a scarred villain who wears a mask, a princess, and a couple of bickering harmless men caught up in the narrative would eventually be translated by Lucas into R2D2 and C3PO.

The film has a handful of remarkably intense performances as Nishi (Toshiro Mifune) investigates the death of his father, an apparent suicide from the seventh floor of the construction corporation where he worked. During his investigation there are no literal ghosts, but he does corral one passive, nervous participant in the affair to saunter out and make appearances after he’s believed to be dead. The performances are almost over the top, but don’t quite go too far, instead managing to convey the intensity of shifting alliances and uncertain times.  The score mixes powerful, dramatic music with strangely chipper music that seems oddly inappropriate during dramatic moments. The settings in the film manage to include both current, living corporate environments and the industrial desolation left behind.

The trailer remarks “This towering masterpiece is a must-see for today’s public,” and while I’m not quite sure I’d use those terms exactly (and that’s a hell of a statement for a trailer that precedes public reaction to the film by two weeks) I do think it’s an impressive and timeless film, and an engaging one despite a two hour, thirty-two minute running time. Kurosawa is undoubtedly a director who created films that have remained relevant whatever subject he tackled. The end of The Bad Sleep Well may be a subtle and quiet one (and in that sense at least, isn’t much like Hamlet), but it’s also a remarkably powerful ending.

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