The Bad Sleep Well (Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru), a critical portrayal of postwar corporate Japan as a breeding ground for corruption, targets the strong connections between the economy, politics and crime. As a tale of revenge, it recalls Hamlet, but it also echoes the Japanese penchant for vengeance as a dramatic motif.
The famous opening sequence not only introduces the main characters but has profound sociological and ethical significance. The twenty-one-minute wedding banquet scene in a luxury hotel depicts a very specific social microcosm, namely that of the big enterprises and corporations, and Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori) is vice president of one such corporation. The arrest during this scene of two employees suspected of bribery and the comments of the journalists who witness the reception from another room reveal a secret world of corruption and crime.
The journalists, acting like a chorus in a Greek play, inform the viewer about a similar financial scandal five years earlier and that Furuya, one of the suspects at that time, committed suicide. The arrival of a second wedding cake, a perfect replica of the corporation’s main office building, marks the beginning of the plot devised by Furuya’s illegitimate son Koichi Nishi (Toshiro Mifune), who is the bridegroom. A red rose attached to a window on the seventh floor of this wedding cake – the one from which Furuya jumped to his death – is a warning to those who were responsible for his act of suicide.
The camera singles them out one by one: Shirai (Ko Nishimura) panics, Moriyama (Takashi Shimura) is visibly shaken, and only Iwabuchi manages to hide his emotions. By positioning the huge cake behind him, director Akira Kurosawa alludes ironically to the key role that Iwabuchi played in the intrigue that led to Furuya’s death.
Human sacrifice is the way to cover up fraud and to protect the corporation and its image. One of the two men arrested throws himself under a truck. The other, Wada (Kamatari Fujiwari), is about to jump into an active volcano, the dark earth and the smoke of the setting creating an apocalyptic vision. However, he is stopped by Nishi, who fakes his death, and Wada watches his own funeral, arranged by his superiors, who had forced him to choose death. The burial ceremony is turned into a dreamlike sequence, revealing how much it has been perverted by hypocrisy and an inhuman system of which Wada is the victim.
Wada only reluctantly accepts Nishi’s argument that the men he refuses to denounce are not worthy of the sacrifice he was prepared to make. As a former senior executive, he is the product of a system of obedience that is closely related to bushidō, the way of the warrior, which was revived in the late 19th century not long after the end of the samurai era. The film reveals in a drastic and somewhat ironic manner the extent to which this system had survived inside the strongly hierarchical structure of Japanese enterprises and Japanese society.
Kurosawa suggests that the structures of the zaibatsu (the industrial and financial conglomerates) that had dominated the economy of Imperial Japan until 1945 are still alive. The family at the core of the film and into which Nishi marries represents a link to the family-run financial groups of the past. Iwabuchi is depicted as a loving father who is only too willing to host a barbecue for his beloved ones. The idyllic picture of the old man wearing an apron and attending to the needs of his guests is challenged by his son’s laconic remark: “It’s hard to believe he is bad.”
Kurosawa’s social criticism goes beyond legal questions and develops a moral reflection on human behaviour. Nishi’s ethical choices and his growing awareness of humanity are at the core of the film. Having chosen to take the law into his own hands, he is not free from evil himself. He does not hesitate to humiliate and to torture, driving Shirai mad and keeping Moriyama prisoner in the ruins of an old factory. He forces the angst-ridden Wada to witness his own funeral, while he is showing his own emotional detachment by whistling a light-hearted tune. He has married Iwabuchi’s daughter Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa) in order to use her as a tool in his revenge strategy, toying with the young crippled woman’s sincere feelings for him. Irritated by the fact that none of his deeds are made public, he realises the reason for this and says: “I don’t hate enough. It’s hard to hate evil. I shall hate and become bad myself.”
Torn between his desire for revenge and his growing love for his wife, Nishi is caught in a moral dilemma. Frequent images of doors, obstacles, corridors and other barriers to free movement point to both his inner conflict and to a rigid society trapped in an entanglement of crime and corruption. Nishi cannot bring himself to kill Shirai, and he is prepared to allow his father-in-law to live and to expose his guilt at a press conference rather than kill him. Love saves him from murder and helps him break out of the vicious circle of violence and hatred in which evil generates evil.
However, Nishi’s adversaries have no such scruples, and they kill him before the press conference can take place. They inject alcohol into his veins and leave his body in a car on a railway line, making his death look like an accident for which Nishi himself was responsible because he was drunk. This faked claim ensures that Nishi is regarded as a criminal, and it blackens his name forever.
Unlike Nishi, the self-righteous Iwabuchi does not question his evil deeds and is incapable of self-awareness. He is an opportunist, giving Yoshiko the sleeping pills his superiors had sent him to ensure she does not spoil his plan to have Nishi murdered. When Yoshiko confronts him with Nishi’s revelations about the bribery and Furuya’s death, he admits his guilt, but his confession sounds shallow. He has already planned to misuse her honest nature to find out about Nishi’s hideout. Yoshiko, the only untainted character in the film, is driven into madness, the innocent victim of her late husband’s machinations and her father’s evil schemes.
There is a moment when Iwabuchi, making preparations for Nishi’s death, catches sight of his own reflection in a mirror. Is there a trace of horror in his face? Why is he sweating? Because of the lie he has told his beloved daughter, the “weak spot” in his life as his son called her? Or because he is desperately trying to avoid failure? And if so, is he frightened by the shame of disaster or by the call of duty to commit suicide that hovers over him? When Yoshiko suddenly appears next to him in the mirror, Iwabuchi is shocked but then regains his composure and carries out his evil plan.
The phone calls from his unnamed superiors reveal that he is only one link in a long chain of evil. By alluding on several occasions to the connections between industry and the government, Kurosawa suggests that corruption has spread to the very top of the socio-economic system.
The final shot is one of Iwabuchi, still confused by his son’s statement that he and Yoshiko are going to leave him for good, but also relieved that his life is no longer in danger. His deep bow is a profound expression of the triumph of evil embodied by an authoritarian system which relies on absolute obedience and the effacement of the individual. In the words of Nishi’s friend Itakura (Takeshi Kato) about the victory of the corporation men and the fact that Yoshiko was not the only one hoodwinked: “Now all Japan will be hoodwinked.”