I was reluctant to include Akira Kurosawa’s tale of bureaucratic corruption as part of the Hamlet Project, but a few things won me over. For starters, it is one of Kurosawa’s least-appreciated films, often overshadowed by his period costume epics. Secondly, it features an awesome, restrained performance by Toshiro Mifune. And lastly, this movie has perhaps the greatest title you could ask for. Those who work evil do not even feel the pangs of conscience, while justice seems not only resting, but dead.
“The Bad Sleep Well” is often included in a list of Kurosawa’s free adaptations of Shakespeare set in Japan. But as Kaori Ashizu states, critics often force the film into the Hamlet association despite the fact that its plot construction and characters render the Hamlet story as if all the familiar ingredients have been thrown into a blender. By comparing the story of corporate greed to the protracted revenge of Denmark’s late monarch, viewers miss a darkly funny, intricate film noir with touches of the detective thriller. But this, in itself, is much like the original source material, which is itself an adaptation.
We know that Shakespeare used two sources for the Hamlet story. One involved the story of a prince whose father is murdered by his successor. The son must feign madness to stay alive so that he will eventually avenge his father’s murder and take the throne. But Shakespeare, in rendering the play, removed the threat of death to Hamlet at the beginning of the play. Claudius does not seem threatened by his brooding step-son and nephew. Because of this, Hamlet’s reasons for later feigning madness are more complicated and his overall motivation more ambiguous.
Kurosawa does this one better. The setting is the corporate construction world of post-war Japan. Our Hamlet character – Mifune’s Nishi – is not the son of the corporate head but the son-in-law of a vice president. It is as if Hamlet has already married Ophelia and his revenge is on Polonious for carrying out Claudius’ orders. It becomes clear that Nishi’s father-in-law, the evil Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori) often converses over the phone with someone who is more powerful, and perhaps, more evil.
And where Hamlet casually casts Ophelia aside in the course of his revenge, Nishi draws closer to his new wife, Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa). He wants revenge against her father, but his unintended love for her makes it harder for him to carry his plot through to its conclusion, and is eventually its undoing.
The basic plot – Nishi is actually the illegitimate son of Furuya, a functionary employee who jumped to his death from the seventh floor of the office building because of his involvement in government kickbacks. In fact, Nishi is a borrowed identity for a man known as Itakuru. All of his actions are meant to avenge that system that encouraged his father’s self-destruction.
Kurosawa said his inspiration for the film was several stories of government and business corruption that usually ended, not in convictions at the end of investigations, but in suicides. Minor employees killed themselves rather than implicate their corporate bosses, leaving the instigators alive and unpunished. He wondered what would happen if someone took an investigation beyond that point of disintegration. But Nishi isn’t a detective or a prosecutor – he is avenging his father’s suicide out of an oppressive sense of guilt. The day before Furuya’s suicide, he tried to make peace with his son.
But Furuya does not revisit his son from the spiritual world – he leaves him a legacy of illicit cash, which Nishi uses to fund an elaborate revenge.
Kurosawa biographer Stuart Galbraith IV says Nishi is like Hamlet in that he pretends to be something he’s not. But where “Hamlet feigned madness only to teeter on the border of genuine insanity, Nishi becomes so ‘bad’ himself that to get to get to the bad men, he veers toward becoming one of them.” Complicating it further is Nishi’s genuine love of Yoshiko. But their love seems a sterile kind, barely romantic. He cannot feel love when he is, as one character says, tangling with a “a terrifying system that will never yield.”
But it takes more than half of the movie before any of the revenge backstory is revealed. Instead, when we first see Mifune as Nishi, we see a quiet, restrained, almost invisible man who will work as his father-in-law’s secretary. “Hamlet” begins in the aftermath of a wedding – “The Bad Sleep Well” begins at a wedding. But instead of it being that of Claudius and Gertrude, it is the film’s Hamlet and Ophelia. Yoshiko is lame, inspiring sympathy. But an audience coming to the film cold does not see a brooding Nishi – instead, they see the rigid, suffocating, banal formality of a corporate wedding, with the “truth” revealed by the wagging tongues of a group of journalists. The only hint of something wrong comes with the surprise entrance of a wedding cake in the shape of the corporate headquarters, with a rose decorating the window where Furuya jumped.
The reaction to the cake is much like Claudius’ to the performance of “The Mousetrap.” But there are no smiling villains in this story. The only truly smiling character is the ruthless Nishi, who later torments his corporate targets with single-minded gusto, much like Hamlet is often portrayed after he unmasks his uncle with the help of the actors. But again Nishi is not out to avenge murder – because a murder has not been committed. His focus is the system embodied largely by Iwabuchi, but also by Moriyama, Shirai and Wada. The only way he can hope to destroy it is by hiding in plain sight within the company and Iwabuchi’s family. When Nishi fakes Wada’s (Kamatari Fujiwara) suicide, he then uses Wada as a kind of “Hamlet’s ghost” to drive the corporate criminals to admit their guilt. Iwabuchi’s son Tatsuo (Tatsuya Mihashi) serves as both Laertes and Horatio. Gertrude is absent, which probably accounts for Nishi’s early single-mindedness.
It is two settings that reveal Nishi. The moment he steps from silence is when he prevents Wada from committing suicide by throwing himself into a volcano. His figure emerging from the volcanic gas, Nishi announces the true nature of his mission before setting the revenge in motion. The hero emerges from volcanic vents, ancient gateways to the Underworld, to announce his war against dark forces. The second setting is the ruins of the munitions factory, bombed and abandoned. Is this a link to the old Japan, before the corruption of the modern corporate era, or a reminder of where unrestrained ambition will take power? Nishi certainly broods there, like Hamlet, among bruised concrete and twisted metal.
Nishi’s revenge softens, ever so slightly, which ultimately signals his downfall. What happens? Nishi carries Shirai (Akira Nishimura) to the seventh floor office window and threatens to throw him out, with Wada watching. The bug-eyed flunky confesses his role, and Wada forgives him. This sends Nishi into a fury, as both crooked men beg for forgiveness when threatened with ruin and death. “Who gave you the right to forgive him?” Nishi demands, with all the gorgeously righteous anger Mifune can muster. “They tamed my father and you with scraps from their table and offered you up as scapegoats, yet you can't hate them. This is the only message scum like them understand. Even now they sleep soundly, grins on their faces. I won't stand for it! I can never hate them enough!" Later on, he will echo this in a quieter setting, deciding that his hate is insufficient to take them all down. He will be right.
Nishi isn’t Hamlet, because Kurosawa doesn’t allow him to be. His death occurs off-screen, and his murderers (for now they have killed him and not relied on a convenient and dutiful suicide) go unpunished. Hamlet was allowed a moment of resolution and clarity before facing Laertes’ poison blade, and turning it on Claudius. Nishi’s vengeance goes unsatisfied, his borrowed name as obscure as that of his late father, and the rest, regrettably, is silence.
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