“The Bad Sleep Well” – A.J. Hakari

I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say that when it comes to the American public, the name of Japanese filmmaking legend Akira Kurosawa doesn’t quite come to mind. Even those casual movie fans who do know his name probably have seen only a fraction of the man’s work, with these flicks tending to be samurai sagas the likes of Rashomon and Yojimbo. I was in this position for several years myself, so it was a complete shock to go from Kurosawa’s period adventures to The Bad Sleep Well, an unabashed attack on the sort of oppressive and persuasive corporate culture that’s very much alive and well today. But considering Kurosawa’s damn near sterling track record, what’s not surprising is the great job he does of taking a simple story and weaving it into a most absorbing human tragedy.

Times are not good for both Dairyu Construction and the Public Corporation. Rumors of rigged project biddings, massive kickbacks, and other shady business dealings are starting to leak out, the press clamoring over news of every new arrest or a board member’s sudden suicide. But the most important figure behind both companies’ gradual downfall is the one anyone would least suspect, a quiet young man by the name of Koichi Nishi (Toshiro Mifune). Having married the daughter of the Public Corporation’s vice president (Masayuki Mori), Nishi’s allegiances lie anywhere but with his new father-in-law’s organization. This unassuming corporate drone is actually the mastermind behind a plot to expose the companies’ shared corruption bit by subtle bit, Nishi’s motives for this grand scheme having something to do with a company man’s suicide five years prior…

If you view The Bad Sleep Well solely as a pseudo-noirish mystery, then you’re going to come up quite short. You don’t have to be the most astute person in the world to figure out Nishi’s connection to the suicide (especially since even the bare-bones blurb on the back of the Criterion DVD box gives it away), but this isn’t what the film is all about. The meat and potatoes of The Bad Sleep Well comes from juxtaposing Nishi’s ruthless quest for revenge with the equally unmerciful ways by which his targets stay in business. Just as the businessmen keep a stone face amidst police questioning and do a nimble dance to avoid being persecuted, Nishi is just as dedicated to taking these corrupt bastards down, going so far as to prevent a corporate underling (Kamatari Fujiwara) from killing himself and use him to torment an executive by posing him as a ghost.

But such vengeance comes with a price Nishi comes to pay with his humanity, putting him in an especially tricky position when his marriage threatens to grow into being more than a sham. Moral conflict is the name of the game in The Bad Sleep Well, an angle that Kurosawa plays from the point of view of the haves as well as the have-nots, in an approach that further steeps the story in emotional complexity. The thrills may not stem from a truckload of chase scenes, but they’re there nevertheless, coming across as crisp and crackling thanks to the subtle, slow-burn intensity Kurosawa uses to transition to each new plot development. The only time he really fudges up is during a surprisingly wordy climax, in which the stage is apparently set for the denouement to take a certain direction, only to abruptly end on an appropriately dark but awkwardly-staged note. But this is a mere quibble in light of a film otherwise brimming with intelligence, atmosphere, and deft directing, all pulled together by a rich cast headed by the great Mifune, trading in his katana for a Clark Kent get-up and executing a sharp performance as the dedicated Nishi.

The best way I can describe The Bad Sleep Well is that it’s not too far off from the kind of film Park Chan-wook would make today. It doesn’t have the violence or outrightly artistic touches of Oldboy or Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, but it does share a similar sense of spinning a tale of revenge, painting the situation not as a simple black-and-white, “good versus evil” struggle but rather plunking it smack down in the middle of a gray area that just makes things all the more interesting.

Rating: ★★★½

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

Read Chris Luedtke’s The Bad Sleep Well review here.

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