Saturday, June 09, 2007
Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru (The Bad Sleep Well), is a 1960 Akira Kurosawa film noir starring Toshiro Mifune.
And here I'm already talking about a transposition of a Shakespeare play that I like. In this case, it's Hamlet, though just barely, and I believe one of the reasons Kurosawa's Shakespeare movies work so well is that he's not afraid to change a lot of the content in order to suit the new setting, avoiding dissonance between dialogue and visuals. Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru departs from the source material even more drastically than Ran and Kumo no su jo, with varying degrees of success.
The movie is also an indictment of corporate corruption, and the corruption that breeds in the relationships between private companies and government institutions, which, in these days of scandals involving the likes of Halliburton and increased attention on corporate lobbyists, gives the movie a certain timeliness. Of course, Kurosawa was referencing the prevalent corporate corruption existing in 1960 Japan, and the grafts dealt with in the movie seem somewhat less grandiose. Iwabuchi, despite being the movie's Claudius, is only vice president of Public Corp., and the president himself is seen only briefly at the beginning of the movie, though it's implied that he is in on the kickback scheme between Public Corp. and a company called Dairyu.
Mifune plays Koichi Nishi (perhaps an ancestor of Nareth Nishi) in the Prince Hamlet role. His father was Furuyu, a midlevel employee of Dairyu who was in on one of the schemes between Dairyu and Public Corp. and was coerced into committing suicide by Iwabuchi and his subordinates, Moriyama* and Shirai. Furuya leapt from the seventh story of a Dairyu office building, and Nishi, who was Furuya's illegitimate son, changes his name and marries Iwabuchi's daughter Yoshiko in order to get close to the three bureaucrats and exact revenge.
You can see already some of the departures from the play, a few of which work perfectly fine, while others do not. In my mind, the biggest problem is Yoshiko, who, forced to carry water (no pun intended) for both Ophelia and Gertrude, loses credibility of character under the weight of a little too much melodrama. Though the problem really may have been that Kurosawa was simply no good at romance, or even, really, at relationships. Kurosawa's talent for creating characters seems to come from superficial introductions and interactions that somehow paint truly deep and elaborate studies. Reading again bits of Hamlet to-day, I was struck by the scene in Gertrude's bedroom where Hamlet tries to convince Gertrude to acknowledge the truth of what Claudius had done to her previous husband, and what Gertrude was guilty of for marrying Claudius. After Hamlet has accidentally killed Polonius, the ghost of Hamlet's father appears to sharpen the prince's "blunted purpose", and Hamlet finds that his mother does not see the ghost.
I was reminded of something I said to Caitlin recently about her Daughter of Hounds, that, "it works as a meditation on innocence and the relationship between perception and reality—that perception has less effect on reality than some people would like to think." Gertrude cannot see the ghost because she cannot acknowledge to herself what she knows to be the truth.
In Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru, there is no ghost and no similar scene with Gertrude. Instead, Kurosawa introduces a character named Wada, a Dairyu employee who, like Nishi's father, is persuaded to commit suicide for the good of the company--the concern being that Wada would eventually crack under police interrogation. Iwabuchi, Moriyama, and Shirai have effectively used Wada's feelings of guilt to their own ends. Wada took kickbacks, but he's still a decent enough person that is he is not willing to drag the company down with him and ruin the lives of other employees.
Wada goes to a Public Corp. construction site, and Kurosawa shoots his lonely figure isolated among trails of mist and ominous mountains of dirt. Before Wada can kill himself, Nishi intervenes and reveals himself as an agent of vengeance for the first time in the movie.
Mifune's packed into crisp business attire and given conservative eyeglasses and tightly slicked haircut, and the big guy from this point on seems like a volcano always on the edge of eruption, Mifune's natural fire steaming around the seams of his improbably subdued costume.
He fakes Wada's death and takes him under his wing as accomplice. After a brilliant scene where Nishi and Wada watch Wada's funeral from a distance while Nishi plays tape of Moriyama and Shirai joking with each other about how they convinced Wada to commit suicide, Wada becomes Nishi's reluctant ally. He also becomes the ghost.
In one, wicked act of the movie, Nishi allows Wada to be seen twice by Shirai after Nishi has already manoeuvred the situation so that it appears to Iwabuchi and Moriyama that Shirai stole some illicit funds, the whereabouts of which only Shirai and Wada knew. Thus is created a scenario where Shirai is desperately trying to convince his cohorts that he's seen Wada, and at first Iwabuchi and Moriyama think Shirai's trying to weasel out of stealing the money, and then eventually they think he's lost his mind. Iwabuchi and Moriyama can't see the ghost, because it's easier to assume Shirai's double-crossed them than it is to think Wada may have survived. So, in a sense, this is similar to the spirit of the scene with Gertrude, though it lacks the delicacy and the straightforwardness.
When Yoshiko learns what sort of man her father truly is later in the movie, she can't blame Nishi for wanting to take revenge, though she herself can't hate her father. There's internal conflict, but nothing like the complexity of Gertrude's dilemma.
As Ophelia, Yoshiko works a little better, and though Nishi, while menacing in a wild way, is clearly not mad, Kurosawa does a good job of portraying the unnatural state of mind a quest for vengeance can be, and the unnatural effects it can have on a relationship. Nishi, unlike Hamlet with Ophelia, clearly loves Yoshiko, but cannot bring himself to consummate the love because he ostensively married her only to get close to her father.
Unfortunately, Kurosawa decided he needed the two characters to come to an understanding, and I can see why he would want to. Ophelia is a compelling character, and wondering about how she and Hamlet might have ended up together has some of the intrigue of wondering about what it would have been like if Scottie and Madeleine had ended up together in Vertigo. But relieving that tension here, as it surely would in Vertigo, serves to deflate this aspect of the story and we're left with some fairly mundane soap opera melodrama. Though, aside perhaps for its density, this really is the movie's only flaw, in my opinion.
The ending is more bleak than Hamlet's, as it sees Iwabuchi discovering Nishi's plot, tricking his daughter into revealing the man's location, and hiring some yakuza to kill him.** The movie ends with Iwabuchi victorious, talking to Public Corp.'s president and saying goodnight, only to realise it was actually daytime, which leads to the movie's final line where Iwabuchi says he confused night and day.
And this is an important point about corporate corruption, and it's one tied to the idea of self-delusion. We see Iwabuchi at home in one scene, in the backyard with apron and mittens, and several times in the movie we sense these guys aren't just looking out for themselves, but their families as well. The bad things they do mostly have nebulous consequences, but the stakes for themselves and their loved ones are high enough that they do terrible things out of a sense of self preservation.
It's little wonder that Kurosawa immediately followed this movie with Yojimbo, of which he wrote, "Here we are, weakly caught in the middle, and it is impossible to choose between evils. Myself, I've always wanted to somehow or other stop these senseless battles of bad against bad, but we're all more or less weak--I've never been able to. And that is why the hero of this picture is different from us. He is able to stand squarely in the middle and stop this fight. And it is this--him--that I thought of first."
Basically, Sanjuro is everything Nishi needed to be but wasn't. Sanjuro's purpose is not blunted because he is, as is observed in Sanjuro, a sword never in its sheath.
*Moriyama's played by Takashi Shimura as the sort of fellow he was up against in Ikiru.
**There is a Laertes character, who functions almost precisely like Laertes, except in that he never fights Nishi.