Saturday, September 17, 2005

THE BAD SLEEP WELL (1960) - Akira Kurosawa

“It’s hard being evil.” These are the words uttered by a bespectacled, virtually unrecognizable Toshiro Mifune midway through Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well when he finds himself in way over his head in an elaborate revenge plot aimed at the corporate big wigs who brought about his father’s tragic death. The problem isn’t Nishi’s (Mifune) smarts or motivation; his plan is viable and well thought out. It’s the fact that, at heart, he’s a good person. And in 1950s corporate Japan (or 21st century corporate America for that matter), that simply just won’t cut the mustard.

The corporation in question is an Enron-like monolith of corruption, constantly rocked by headline scandals which, much like with Enron, never seem to stick to the big wigs in charge. You see, the big wigs here have one secret weapon to cover their tracks. No, not “rolling blackouts,” elaborate Ponzi schemes, or Arthur Andersen's creative accounting measures. It’s a little thing called suicide. Honor-bound self-extermination…no mess, no math, no hit man required. This is where the Enron similarities pretty much end. Our evil American corporate big-wigs don’t do shame or “honor.” They just get their lawyers involved.
Apparently though, in hari-kari friendly 50s corporate Japan, this method is even easier than pulling the trigger. Executives at the corporation have been easily persuaded into jumping out the windows in droves in order to prevent the scandals from climbing any higher. (Sidebar: The Coen Brothers MUST have screened this movie before doing The Hudsucker Proxy, then promptly turned it into a comedy). When Nishi finds out his father was one such jumper, he decides to seek revenge by switching his identity, marrying the Biggest big-wig’s crippled daughter, and working his way up the corporate ranks so that he may expose the corruption with hard proof. He does this mainly by saving the lives of two suicidal executives, helping them to fake their own death, then keeping them alive to use them as witnesses to bring down the Big Board. But there’s one little problem – he never expected to fall in love with the boss’s daughter, who will be ruined if her corrupt father is exposed. Talk about a Ponzi scheme…
The Bad Sleep Well has a dense, labyrinthine plot, but Kurosawa keeps you involved by peeling back layer upon layer of corruption slowly. He starts the film with a terrific wedding reception sequence, where tabloid journalists are crowding to get inside and a huge wedding cake in the shape of the corporate headquarters is rolled in with a single rose sticking out of the 7th floor window – the one from which Nishi’s father jumped. Everyone is appalled, except Nishi of course, who at first just seems like another cruel opportunist marrying his way up the corporate ladder until he’s later revealed to be the mastermind behind the plot.
Mastermind though he may be, Nishi sucks at “being bad.” His ultimate downfall is that, even in righteous revenge, he’s just not BAD ENOUGH. If your opponent is the type who’s willing to poison his own crippled daughter for your whereabouts, you have to realize you’ve entered a whole different BAD GUY BALLGAME all together.

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