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THE BAD SLEEP WELL

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Toshiro Mifune, Masayuki Mori, Kyoko Kagawa, Tatsuya Mihashi
Director:  Akira Kurosawa
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  150 Minutes
Release Date:  January 10, 2005

"Helluva wedding."

"Truly bizarre.  Best one-act I've ever seen."

"One-act?  This is just the prelude."

Film ***1/2

When watching The Bad Sleep Well, I was reminded of an old Archie Bunker line about how Richard Nixon wouldn't have had so much trouble had he hired Japanese men instead of Germans.  Why?  Because if the Japanese get caught, he mused, "they do the right thing and kill themselves."

Suicide is indeed quite prevalent in Akira Kurosawa's noir-ish movie, a tale of corporate corruption, scandal, tragedy and revenge.  It's part Hamlet, part Greek tragedy, and part modern critique of the post-War business climate in Japan, which probably didn't differ that much from any other industrialized country's business climate.  The rich and powerful were kings and everyone else was a pawn.  And anyone who plays chess knows what the pawns are used for.

It begins with a 20 minute set piece at a wedding reception.  There, we get our first glimpse of Nishi (the always superb Mifune), as he marries into a giant corporation headed by vice president Iwabuchi (Mori).  His new bride Yoshiko (Kagawa) is crippled, and her brother Tatsuo (Mihashi) is a friend who also warns Nishi publicly never to make Yoshiko unhappy.  A gathering of tabloid reporters is present, and they serve as a kind of chorus, giving us the exposition about the company's wheelings and dealings, including a suicide that took place five years earlier.  The scene has a terrific exclamation point when a second wedding cake is rolled out:  one shaped like the office building where the death took place, complete with a rose marking the exact window from which the man jumped!

Is Nishi marrying for love or power?  As it turns out...neither.  As the story progresses, we learn that he is the illegitimate son of the man who killed himself.  In an elaborate scheme of revenge, he has changed his identity and managed to claim a spot not only in Iwabuchi's family, but in his company as well, becoming personal secretary to his father-in-law.  The wheels of justice have already begun to close in on the corrupt corporation, leading to at least one more suicide and one that appears to be, but isn't quite what it seems.

To delve further into the plot would be to deprive a first-time viewer of the terrific storyline constructed by Kurosawa and his writers, which is ripe with suspense, intrigue and surprises.  As in the best of film noir, no character comes across as completely clean.  It isn't exactly good guys versus bad guys, but rather slightly soiled guys against downright filthy guys.

Kurosawa and Mifune collaborated many times over the course of their careers, and if The Bad Sleep Well is sometimes thought of as the least of their partnerships, that's really only a testament to how incredibly great their other films were.  This is a great movie as well...if it pales slightly in comparison to Yojimbo, Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress or High and Low, face it...you can say most pictures suffer via that comparison.

Mifune proves once again to be one of the greatest film actors ever.  Watch one of his samurai pictures with Kurosawa and then watch this movie; the difference is astonishing.  In a film with more than a share of melodramatic moments, it's Mifune's quiet, oft-internalized portrayal of Nishi that gives the movie its pent-up energy.

And Kurosawa, regardless of genre, always seems at the top of his game.  His visual style, particularly his command of widescreen and the excellent use of black and white photography gives The Bad Sleep Well an authentic feeling of film noir, even if we're dealing with white collar criminals instead of tough street thugs.  It's not a world of lost souls, lonely dames and hard-edged flatfoots, but a world that seems surprisingly real even some forty years after the fact.

Perhaps the only complaint is that there are a handful of moments where the story slows down for the characters to divulge a little necessary background information...it occasionally feels a little forced and false.  But Kurosawa is one of cinema's consummate storytellers, so what are we grumbling about, really?  Too much of a good thing?

The Bad Sleep Well is taut, character-driven entertainment delivered by one of the medium's master artists.  There's really nothing more to be said.

Video ***1/2

Criterion's anamorphic transfer does the film justice...Kurosawa's black and white photography is crisp, detailed and never murky, no matter how dark certain sequences become.  Only a smattering of grain and an occasional image flicker belie the picture's age.  Overall, another triumph for the only studio (in my opinion) that should be touching Kurosawa's movies for DVD.

Audio ***

The audio mix is generally very good, with only bits and pieces of noticeable background noise.  Dynamic range sounds stronger than average for a single-channel presentation, with music and sound effects adding much to the overall effect.

Features **

The disc contains a trailer and an excerpt devoted to The Bad Sleep Well from "It Is Wonderful to Create", the lengthy documentary series on Kurosawa.  I wonder if Criterion will ever put that entire documentary together for DVD presentation?  It would be invaluable to cineastes!

Summary:

The Bad Sleep Well is a must-see for fans of Akira Kurosawa or Toshiro Mifune, and even more so for the many fans of both artists.  Kurosawa's sense of story and style mixed with another memorable performance from Mifune make for a striking and thoroughly entertaining classic.

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