Published on May 31st, 2021 | by Douglas Rasmussen0
The Criterion Cut: The Bad Sleep Well
In this Criterion Cut, Douglas introduces us to an unsung classic film in director Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well. Hot takes on Shakespeare abound!
If you’re still quarantined, or at least staying home a lot more and looking to fill your time, then perhaps watching some underrated yet classic movies will do the trick. I’d recommend The Bad Sleep Well (1960) from noted director Akira Kurosawa. It is an often-overlooked film that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as his samurai epics or even his other contemporary dramas like Stray Dog (1949).
The Bad Sleep Well is an adaptation of the William Shakespeare play Hamlet (some would say too loose of an adaptation). It is Kurosawa’s third adaptation of Shakespeare, with his Macbeth adaptation Throne of Blood coming out in 1957 (to mixed results, if you ask me), and Ran in 1985. Ran is an adaptation of King Lear and it is quite stunning to look at. It’s my personal favorite film of Kurosawa’s, but it’s also well-known and commented on, whereas The Bad Sleep Well doesn’t always receive the attention it deserves.
I should disclose that despite my training in English Literature, I have never been entirely fond of Shakespeare. Despite what high school might have told you, I don’t think his plays translate well in a modern context. I appreciate the artistry of the language, but it’s essentially an actor’s medium with very little to offer a student of literature. The themes and ideas are largely irrelevant and obsolete and Shakespeare’s fondness for the aristocracy (not to mention his willingness to cater to their demands when writing plays), are a hindrance to appreciating the literature of Shakespeare. At this point he’s just an icon of the ‘author-genius’ trope.
When I discuss the obsolete themes in Shakespeare I’m reminded of a quote from the Irish playwright and avowed socialist George Bernard Shaw who once noted, “Hamlet’s experiences could not simply happen to a plumber.” However, this is what makes The Bad Sleep Well such an intriguing rendition of Hamlet. Kurosawa replaces Shakespeare’s fascination with Danish royal lineage and the right to the throne and inverts into a story about class consciousness in the immediate post-war years of Japan. Instead of a privileged son of royalty we are treated to a mid-level businessman in a huge corporation named Koichi Nishi (played excellently by Toshirô Mifune, but without his usual ticks and weird expressions), who is the ‘Hamlet’ of the story, and hell-bent on revenge against Tatsuo Iwabuchi (Tatsuya Mihashi, as the Uncle Claudius analogue), who he suspects killed his father. Unlike Hamlet he is driven to revenge but doesn’t waffle or whine or spout long monologues of existential angst, Nishi just simply fails.
Nishi’s failure provides the film’s most trenchant critique of corrupt corporate culture in Japan and in doing so puts a distinct class-consciousness in Hamlet. With Hamlet there is at least some sense of heroism in his sacrifice to kill Claudius and he does actually succeed, albeit at the cost of his own life. By having Nishi attempt in all earnestness but end up failing sets up the notion that failure is an inevitability when fighting against the powers-that-be. The corporate structure is simply too unrelentingly powerful to ever be truly stopped by any individual, so the oppression continues and Nishi ends up hoveled up in an abandoned munitions factory.
Kurosawa’s subversion of Shakespeare’s preference for the aristocracy makes this film go beyond the usual stick-Hamlet-a-suit approach to modernization. The Bad Sleep Well is also a perfectly composed film in terms of framing (there’s a definite sense of geometry to each scene which gives clues to the viewer as to the power dynamics in each scene), making this a definite must-watch film. I love the idea that Kurosawa rewrites Shakespeare to make it about class struggles, economic oppression, and the problematic nature of Japan’s “economic miracle.” The film is often overlooked in comparison to Kurosawa’s other films, but it’s one of my favorites and I think well worth a watch for those who haven’t seen it but are interested in watching an underrated film classic.