December 26, 2008

The Bad Sleep Well (1960 film)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Written by Akira Kurosawa, Eijiro Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni.

It opens with a day of merriment, of celebration, as Public Corporation Vice President Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori) marries off his beloved daughter to his new secretary and son-in-law Koichi Nishi (Toshiro Mifune). Despite a gaggle of reporters in the lobby sharing whispers of some brewing event, the large, formal ceremony goes off without a hitch. But then an ominous cake is rolled into the room. It's modeled after a partner company's office building and, in an office window remembered for a mysterious suicide five years ago, there rests a red rose.

As the majority of the people within the room overlook this oddity and go on with the party, three men, Iwabuchi, Moriyama (Takashi Shimura), and Shirai (Ko Nishimura), struggle to keep a straight face as they know this cake is a message for them.

Within days, the partner company publicly folds under a wave of legal accusations of bribery and racketeering, and everyone at Public does what they can to hide that relationship and the heaps of money that were exchanged behind closed doors. But that's not easy to do when one lone man, tied to that mysterious suicide five years ago, has infiltrated the higher ups and is doing everything in his power to tear their world down around them.

Such begins Kurosawa's highly revisionist interpretation of Hamlet and... I'm not sure what else to really say without giving things away. I know I haven't hesitated when it comes to spoilers in the past, but there's such an elaborate web of deception layered through this picture, I'd feel bad if I knew I ruined it for anyone.

I will, however, take the time to applaud Kurosawa for taking a classic story and, instead of just doing a straight adaptation or modernization, totally dissecting the material and rearranging the themes and character arcs and dynamics and even specific moments into something new and fresh, which truly captures the heart of the original story while putting a brand new spin on things. It's a masterful adaptation, and I love how he adds new elements to the mix, such as the corporate hierarchy, where everyone is trained to sacrifice themselves for the good of their superior, or the use of a vigilante who is patient with his goals and sets elaborate traps that win him leverage for the next target instead of an easy kill.

It really is a masterfully conceived story, and I love how Kurosawa plays up the gray areas - much as the play did - in terms of humanizing the bad guys by surrounding them with innocent families whom they genuinely love, which also adds a layer of hesitation when it comes to our acceptance of the hero, because he, at least initially, has no problem making these innocents suffer so he can get what he wants. Once again, Kurosawa's collaboration with writers Kikushima, Hashimoto, and Oguni produces winning material that not only raises worthy questions, but delivers honest, brutal answers that sometimes make us wish nothing had been asked in the first place.

And his direction is at its absolute best, capturing the strained relationship between the public and private images of corporations through clever use of the media in the opening, with reporters too bored to snap photos as they watch the stiff, formal, smiling party across the room, immediately followed by a clashing montage as scandal after scandal after scandal hits the sheets and newsreels. It's interesting how the media that Kurosawa once vilified with Scandal now seems to be held up as a tolerable annoyance and the only means of keeping such massive acts of greed and corporate corruption in check.

I have to say, I didn't expect much from this film. Out of Kurosawa's body of work, this is one I'd heard the least about, so I anticipated something mediocre by his standards. I couldn't be happier to admit the error of my assumption as this stands as yet another hallmark in a line of perfect movies that show Kurosawa at the peak of his career.

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