Rating: The Good – 92.3 Genre: Jidaigeki, Mystery Duration: 88 mins Director: Akira Kurosawa Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Machiko Kyô, Masayuki Mori
A notorious bandit is arrested and put on trial for the murder of a samurai and rape of his wife. The differing testimonies offered by the suspect, witnesses, and victims (with the dead samurai’s being provided through a medium) all add unique clues to figuring out what happened but none seem to provide a satisfying overall picture. Akira Kurosawa’s seamless psychological and philosophical exploration of truth and personal perspective was as daring as it was imaginative. Not only was it way ahead of its time cinematically but it also foreshadowed seminal scientific critiques of eye-witness testimony in the 1970’s and 80’s.
Though the story is necessarily disjointed, Kurosawa’s tracking of it through editing, staging, and his own use of perspective ties the whole thing together in visionary style. The cinematography too is astounding as the stark daylight in the “reconstruction” sequences is used to telling and quite relevant effect while the capturing of the gatehouse (Rashomon) sequences reflects the murkiness of the witnesses’ accounts as those accounts themselves are analysed in retrospect. The acting is utterly sensational from Takashi Shimura’s low-key and even sinister performance as the woodcutter to Toshira Mifune’s blistering turn as the vicious bandit charged with the crime. Rashomon has gone on to influence countless movies and movie-makers alike and one viewing of this arresting piece of cinema will explain exactly why.
Kurosawa’s first outing under the umbrella of his own production company is this loose adaptation of Hamlet (the second and most under-acknowledged of his magnificent Shakespearean trilogy). Beginning with an elaborate wedding sequence in which a corporate leader’s daughter and his personal secretary are married, this intricate tale is set up as the main players and internal politics are laid out through the amusing conversations of gathering reporters. The reporters are gathered because the fraud squad are expected to arrive with arrest warrants for senior company figures which pertain to bribery, embezzlement, and the suicide of a senior clerk after he threw himself out of a seventh story window the year before. Interrupting the curious speeches, a second wedding cake arrives in the shape of the corporate headquarters with a rose protruding from the aforementioned seventh story window. It’s a sharply realised moment made even more effective as the room full of guests attempt to politely ignore the awkward implications. This a truly brilliant opening and culminates perfectly with a deliciously reflexive remark made by one of the reporters. As the story progresses, the sender of the cake escalates his persecution of the executives until each are pitted against the other in a Machiavellian strategy of revenge.
Toshirô Mifune is the young groom whose involvement in the story grows interestingly throughout the first and second act. He brings a reserved intensity to the role that reflects the momentum of the film at a more focused level and moves from seething hatred to compassionate friend and indeed husband with a graceful ease. Kamatari Fujitara and Kô Nishimura are excellent as the two grovelling executives at the bottom of the food chain and Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura scores well as one of the evil superiors.
The Bad Sleeps Well is a beautifully shot film-noir. The depth and contrasts seem to effortlessly combine to frame character and action alike while the tableau shots of the wedding in particular are simply spectacular. Kurosawa’s use of sound is just as impressive and the scene in which he backtracks Fujitara’s characters funeral with a secret recording of his bosses’ gloating is reminiscent of Welles at his best. The true virtue to the film is the writing which lays out a plot as complex and fascinatingly structured as the best of the French or US variety. There’s a wonderful balance to the script as the cold business settings are offset by some touching personal moments with the contrast between the pitiless and warm dialogue of the two sequences being the most striking. The film does seem to have trouble in second-third act transition which slightly imbalances the mood which had been so carefully set early on. However, the ending more than makes up for it as everything is snapshot back into focus.
The Bad Sleep Well is a ruthless indictment of corporate culture in Kurosawa’s Japan where CEOs operated with impunity by preying on the submissive mentality of lackeys who would go as far as killing themselves rather than let their betters take the fall. It’s also a profound meditation on revenge and how the only way to fight evil is to become it and where any mercy results in slaughter.