The Bad Sleep Well

The title of Akira Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well suggests the film's debt to American noir, but an alternate version of the title reveals even more in eight simple words: The Worse You Are, The Better You Sleep. Released in 1960 and made between the light samurai adventure The Hidden Fortress and the landmark samurai dark comedy Yojimbo, The Bad Sleep Well depicts a Japan that's only grown more brutal since it put away its swords. Echoing Hamlet (though not drawn directly from Shakespeare like Throne Of Blood and Ran), it stars Toshirô Mifune as a young man who marries into the family of a prominent executive (Masayuki Mori) in the hope of exacting revenge for the father Mori had killed. Mori's motive: greed. Deeply enmeshed in shady dealings and government graft, he's willing to kill to protect the bottom line.

To stop him, Mifune uses terror and persuasion to recruit one of Mori's top men (Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura) into his cause. Their electric sequence climaxes with Shimura watching his own funeral, accompanied by a tape of his former co-workers cackling over how much easier their lives will be with him gone. Kurosawa keeps up the pace as the men go about building their scheme, all while sustaining Mifune's undertone of doubt and a sense that his own righteousness might destroy him. "It's not easy hating evil," Mifune says. "You have to stoke your own fury until you become evil yourself."

The Bad Sleep Well continues to be an assured, muscular Kurosawa film for so long that it's all the more disappointing when a shapeless, anticlimactic, but probably inevitable ending does it in. (Hint: Look at that title again.) In a world shaped by Enron and similar scandals—and last year saw a string of similar revelations in Japan—it couldn't be any timelier, but it ultimately ends up as little more than an impassioned cry of frustration.

Key features: This is a thin release by Criterion standards, filled out by a making-of doc and a pair of appreciative essays; one is by director Michael Almereyda, who, along with Aki Kaurismäki, ran with Kurosawa's Hamlet-in-the-business-world notion.

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