Friday, January 22, 2010

Kurosawa Centennial: The Bad Sleep Well

A public authority has engaged in a massive bid fixing scheme worth billions of yen with a private construction firm. It might sound like an edgy contemporary “ripped from the headlines” thriller, but it is actually a 1960 film noir classic from Akira Kurosawa. Indeed, Film Forum proves there is far more to Kurosawa’s filmography than samurai films when The Bad Sleep Well (trailer here) screens as part of their month long celebration of the towering director’s centennial (1910-2010).

Vague rumors of corruption are swirling around the Unutilized Land Development Corporation. Much to the delight of a cynical pack of reporters, the wedding of Vice President Iwabuchi’s daughter Yoshiko to his corporate secretary Koichi Nishi is interrupted by the arrest of Wada, a financial middle manager. The drama does not end there though. When an enormous cake shaped like an office building arrives, it seems to suck all the oxygen out of the room.

Scandal seems to follow Iwabuchi. In a previous position, his subordinate leaped to his death after finding himself implicated in another corruption probe. That window is conspicuously identified on the mystery cake. What Iwabuchi does not know is that his secretary and son-in-law is actually the illegitimate son of the man who died as a result of his graft. Having assumed the identity of a friend with a clean record, the man now known as Nishi is out for some stone cold revenge. Unfortunately, one unforeseen development complicates his plan. Nishi has fallen in love with his wife.

Often considered Kurosawa’s Hamlet, Sleep is a revenge tragedy that has ample precedent in Japanese literature and drama. Though set at least one hundred years apart, there are strong parallels between Sleep and the story of the vengeful Yukinojo Nakamura who Kon Ichikawa eventually brought to the screen in the classic Revenge of a Kabuki Actor. In both cases, sons insinuate themselves into the company of the men deemed responsible for their fathers’ death. Under an assumed identity, they manipulate their targets, turning them against each other. In the process, both lose their hearts to a woman close to their top targets. However, Sleep is far darker and more jaded than the Meiji set Kabuki.

Indeed, Sleep is quite withering in its depiction of corporate-government corruption and the misplaced sense of personal honor that ironically protects the guilty. Frequent Kurosawa Toshirō Mifune is typically intense as the honor-bound Nishi, almost unrecognizable in such a different context than the scruffy samurai and ronin he is best known for playing. However, it is Kyoko Kagawa and Kamatari Fujiwara who memorably provide the film’s conscience as Yoshiko and Wada, respectively.

The unsentimental Sleep is one of many great films from a master filmmaker. Part of a 28-film retrospective that is a true New Year’s gift to film lovers, Sleep screens at Film Forum on January 26th. The Kurosawa Centennial series continues through February 18th, with new films screening nearly every day in January.