Movies You Might Have Missed: The Bad Sleep Well

Title: The Bad Sleep Well (Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru)
Release Date: 1960
Rating: N/A
Length: 151 minutes
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Masayuki Mori, Kyoko Kagawa
Language: Japanese
Country: Japan

In the West, there’s no question that Akira Kurosawa is best known for his period pieces with samurai. From the ground-breaking Rashomon and epic The Seven Samurai to the cowboy-film-in-disguise Yojimbo that inspired Western imitations and Shakespeare adaptations like Ran and Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s samurai dominate the Western perception of his work. To only focus on these masterpieces, however, is to miss the great work he did with contemporary settings and stories. The Bad Sleep Well is such a one.

Get your snacks and consider an intermission because this film is over 2 and half hours. It doesn’t drag, but instead creates a slow burn of ever-increasing tension by doling out information to you in drips and building ever more uncertainty right to the very end. Noir was not a genre Kurosawa dealt with often, but he handles it deftly here.

Opening with a wedding, unless you’re already an aficionado of mid-century Japanese cinema, you might not even know who the primary characters are at the beginning. Over the opening it is revealed that this wedding is taking place among those highly placed in business and in government and the interest of the press is not solely for the society pages. The police show up as well and there are hints of a bribery and corruption scandal. But the real kicker is an unusual second cake that is delivered and causes a great deal of consternation.

Beyond the police and alleged criminals, there turns out to be another player as well. It appears someone on the inside is also working to take down the corrupt men, but how and why and who is not immediately apparent. The police begin to hit dead ends when the men they arrest and interrogate shelter behind a stony silence. But even after they concoct some new methods of attack, they are stymied by suicides of some conspirators on the outer edges of the plot.

Hopefully it doesn’t spoil too much to say that the story unfolds less like a detective thriller and more like a Shakespearean tragedy. Themes of corruption, loyalty, betrayal, love, hate, revenge; the scope is really far more epic than one would expect for a tale of bureaucratic corruption and kickback schemes.

It’s hard to watch this and not suspect that Kurosawa had suffered at the hands of corrupt officials of some kind. I don’t know that was the case, but boy howdy this feels personal. The acting is top-notch across the board. Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura stand out, but even the small supporting parts shine. (Look for Ozu’s’ favorite actor Chishu Ryu, star of There Was a Father, in a bit part.)

This is an unfairly overlooked gem. It’s no denigration of its quality to note it probably isn’t in Kurosawa’s top five. He almost never put a foot wrong. It’s a rare thing to find a director as prolific and yet so consistently excellent. The only other director that springs to mind as his peer in these regards is Hitchcock. Most any other director would be proud to have this film at the pinnacle of their resumé.

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