Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Analysis of Akira Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

"It's not easy hating evil, you have to stoke your own fury until you become evil yourself."

I've been a huge fan of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa for over a decade now and I've seen a large majority of his films. I had seen almost all the ones usually considered his major works, except for The Bad Sleep Well (Japanese title: Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru), but I rectified this omission the other day.

Released in 1960, it was Kurosawa's twentieth film. Unlike the historical epics that many know him for, this was set in contemporary Japanese society.

This was the first movie made by Kurosawa's independent production company (although their logo still appears at the beginning of the credits), starting a new era of autonomy. He wrote the screenplay along with Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Eijiro Hisaita. The score was written by Masaru Sato.

Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune stars at Itakura (although you think his name is Nishi at the beginning of the film). He is not portraying a showy character full of bravado and anger as he often does, but he still gives an excellent performance.

Itakura is a man whose father was forced to commit suicide by a corrupt Japanese company he worked for in order to keep company secrets hidden. He then changes his identity and marries Yoshiko Iwabuchi, the daughter of the Vice President of the company. He also becomes Iwabuchi's right hand man as his secretary, doing all this in order to root out corporation's corruption.

Kurosawa uses this plot to ask moral questions. Mifune's character has to commit several crimes in order to further his plan for revenge. Is he justified in doing what he does? Do his ends justify his means? The film doesn't seem to give an answer either way, but rather forces the audience to contemplate these questions.

As with all Kurosawa films, this has some amazing cinematography. It was shot in black and white using a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The Youtube channel "Every Frame a Painting" by Tony Zhou pointed out that Kurosawa loves to shoot groups of people, and this helps make his films visually dynamic. This is definitely shown off in The Bad Sleep Well.

There are many shots throughout the film of large groups, such as the journalists at the opening wedding scene. The shots usually have everyone in focus, so there is a lot going on in them.

I really love this symmetrical shot with six people at the very beginning.

This also relates to Kurosawa's masterful use of depth of field. Often, something is going on in both the foreground and the background. A perfect example is the scene where Shirai, the chief of contracts at Public Corporation, has just been accused of stealing from the company. He goes to retrieve his briefcase, in which Mifune's character has planted cash.

The scene's focus may appear to be on Shirai and his superior Moriyama, who has become suspicious of him. But in the background the whole time is Mifune, who remains silent. He gives a subtle, effective performance that draws our eyes to him and is eventually centered in frame. 

The Bad Sleep Well is considered to be loosely based on Shakespeare's Hamlet. Kurosawa more directly adapted Shakespeare on two other occasions. The first was the 1957 film Throne of Blood, which utilized the plot of Macbeth. In 1985, he adapted King Lear to make the epic masterpiece Ran. I'm far from a Shakespeare expert, but supposedly this film takes more liberties with the source material than those two.

This easily ranks among the Japanese master's best, and is essential viewing for any Kurosawa fan.

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