The Bad Sleep Well, Akira Kurosawa’s 1960 Hamlet adaptation, is a sharp sendup of the rise of corporatism in the second half of the twentieth century. In this picture, Toshiro Mifune stars as Nishi, a young organization man, and our Prince Hamlet, determined to bring justice to the men responsible for his father’s death.
Nishi follows a string of mysterious deaths and cover-ups through the hierarchy of his company, eventually facing off with the powerful and delightfully villainous President Iwabuchi (Mayasuki Mori). This corruption scandal and cover-up advances the Hamlet plotline, leaving a surprising number of violent deaths in the wake (There are shotgun attacks and a deadly volcano).
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Producers: Akira Kurosawa, Tomoyuki Tanaka
Writers: Hideo Oguni, Ejirô Hisaita, Akira Kurosawa, Ryûzô Kikushima, Shiobu Hashimoto
Cinematographer: Yuzuru Aizawa
Editor: Akira Kurosawa
Music: Masaru Satô
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Maayuki Mori, Kyôko Kagaw, Tatsuya Mihashi, Takashi Shimura
Premiere: September 4, 1960 – Japan
US Release: January 22, 1963
US Distributor: The Criterion Collection
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the intersection between traditional Japanese values, notably the notion of honor code and suicide, and the demands of a new corporate power structure. In this regard, Kurosawa gives us a fascinating critique of Modernism in the Japanese context. If Drunken Angel (1948) was about broken people living in a broken city, and Stray Dog (1949) delved into Japan’s lost generation, The Bad Sleep Well turns the focus towards an economy on the mend, and the implications that a rapidly modernizing corporate culture has on traditional society.
This unease with the effects of Modernism was a central tenant of art across the globe at the mid-century mark, and The Bad Sleep Well, echoes William Whyte’s 1956 novel The Organization Man, Sloan Wilson’s Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Roman trilogy, especially L’Eclisse (1962).
As the technology of production became increasingly advanced, efficiency defined the system of corporate morality. Kurosawa turns his elegant and distinctive lens on this system, showing the violence that necessarily lurks on the other side of technological rationality. Like Fritz Lang and his hidden subterranean laborers in Metropolis (1927), he shows the essentially dissonant priorities of corporations and workers: while the advance of Modernity appears beautiful, it does not concern the dreams and aspirations of the worker. More often than not, life within the organization can be a strange, bewildering, and violent experience.
And while the tragic excesses of Hamlet are extreme, their trueness reaches a level of Jungian fundamentality. (Carl Sandburg wrote: They all want to play Hamlet/ They have not exactly seen their father’s killed/ Nor their mother’s in a frame-up to kill/ Nor an Ophelia dying in the dust/… To stand by an open grave with a joker’s skull in the hand and then to say over slow and say over slow wise, keen, beautiful words masking a heart that’s breaking, breaking / This is something that calls and calls to their blood/ They are acting when they talk about it/ And they know it is acting to be particular about it/ And yet they all want to play Hamlet). Like any true Shakespearean, Kurosawa holds up a joker’s skull and displays the two-sided Janus head of the Modern world.