Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Bad Sleep Well

The Bad Sleep Well premiered on September 15, 1960. The film marked the beginning of a new phase in the storied career of director Akira Kurosawa (1910-98).

Kurosawa started working for Toho Studios in 1938. Five years later in 1943 he directed his first film, Sugata Sanshiro. A string of commercial and critical successes over the next five years quickly established Kurosawa as one of the most electrifying new directors working in Japan. Important films from this early period include: No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), Drunken Angel (1948), and Stray Dog (1949).

In 1950 Kurosawa directed Rashomon, one of the most important films in the history of Japanese cinema. Winning the Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival and Best Foreign Film award at the 1951 Academy Awards, Rashomon become the first Japanese film to garner international attention and effectively introduced worldwide audiences to the richness of Japanese cinema. With this stunning achievement, Kurosawa cemented his status in the Japanese film industry.

To keep their internationally renowned director happy, Toho gave Kurosawa carte blanche in his subsequent films. He responded by directing some magnificent features, most notably Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), and Thrown of Blood (1957). Less pleasing to the Toho front office was Kurosawa's increasing extravagance. Seven Samura, for example, was months over schedule and way over budget, turning out to be one of the most expensive films made in Japan to date. In an effort to force Kurosawa to pay closer attention to the bottom line, the studio encouraged him to establish his own production company in conjunction with Toho Studios.

The Bad Sleep Well was the first film that Kurosawa directed under this new arrangement. Determined to make a powerful statement, he chose to structure the movie around an explosive contemporary issue, the corporate scandals that were rocking Japan in the late 1950s. Despite its epic scale, expensive cast, and long running time, the film still managed to turn a profit. Audiences appreciated the engrossing plot, the film-noire atmosphere, and the flashy performance by Toshiro Mifune. The film also struck a powerful chord with critics, who ranked The Bad Sleep Well as the third best film of the year.

The Bad Sleep Well initiated what is generally thought to be the most creative period of Kurosawa's career. Over the next four years he directed some of his greatest masterpieces: Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962), and Red Beard (1965).

After Red Beard, Kurosawa directed seven more features, the most memorable of which were Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985). These late films further endeared him to US directors, especially Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who presented Kurosawa with an honorary Oscar in 1989.

Although Kurosawa is now generally associated with his historical dramas, he also excelled at films set in contemporary times. Indeed, his early films tended to addresses social problems of postwar Japan. No Regrets for Our Youth, for instance, depicts the obstacles faced by antiwar activists, Drunken Angel confronts the despair of the Occupation, and Ikiru reveals the intransigence of the postwar bureaucracy.

In this same vein, The Bad Sleep Well combines commentary on a modern social problem with high-voltage melodrama. The director further complicates the mix by adding elements gleaned from Shakespeare's Hamlet, the crime fiction of US writer Ed McBain, and a dash of the classic Japanese adauchi-mono (revenge tale). The end result is a riveting and entertaining film.

Toshiro Mifune (1920-97) gives a solid performance as the brooding hero of The Bad Sleep Well. It was the eleventh film (out of a total of fifteen) that the star had made under Kurosawa's direction. Mifune also worked successfully with directors Hiroshi Inagaki and Masaki Kobayashi. In most of films he played a man of action, thrilling audiences with his elemental power and natural charisma. Due to his collaboration with Kurosawa, Mifune is probably the most famous Japanese film star in the world.

Kurosawa in the 1950s

Michiyo Kogure and Toshiro Mifune in Drunken Angel

Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, and Mifune in Seven Samurai

Mifune, Seizaburo Kawazu, Susumu Fujita, and Isuzu Yamada in Yojimbo


Blogger rupan777 said...

I've seen The Bad Sleep Well several times and like it a lot. I've always thought that the film was almost a counterpoint to Kurosawa's earlier (and fabulous) Ikiru. In Ikiru, change in the system is seen from the inside with the protagonist Watanabe while BSW sees change being affected from the outside by its protagonist Nishi. Both, though, are excellent films and give good insight into the corporate and bureaucratic cultures of Japan, something that we don't see as much as the overpublicized images of their pop culture.

April 30, 2007 at 3:22 PM  
Blogger Jim Reichert said...

I would like to add that among all the films in this series, The Bad Sleep Well benefits the most from being shown on the big screen. With their dynamic editing and powerful cinematography, Kurosawa's films require the large canvas of a movie screen. So even if you've seen this film at home, it's going to be a profoundly different, and much more satisfying, experience to see it in a theater (even Cubberley).

May 1, 2007 at 2:47 PM  
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April 10, 2010 at 5:32 PM  

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