1960. Starring Toshiro Mifune. Directed by Akira Kurosawa.
The great Toshiro Mifune plays Nishi, an ambitious corporate assistant eager to climb the ladder of a shady land development company, going so far as to marry the chairman’s daughter. But unlike the other bureaucrats and salarymen who bow and scrape as part of their job, Nishi doesn’t want the respect of his father-in-law or the money that comes with his position. He wants revenge.
Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well has many of the elements found in American film noir, but instead of focusing on human corruption, it peels back the corruption infused in big business.
Nishi isn’t even Nishi — he has traded identities with a childhood friend in order to have the college degree and clean background required for the job. He’s really the illegitimate son of an executive from the same corporation, made to take the fall years earlier as part of a crooked kickback scheme. As Nishi, he’ll ingratiate himself with his powerful father-in-law, while at the same time confronting and exposing those responsible for his father’s death. He plays one crooked executive against the other, using threats, violence and shame to get to the next level.
The lengthy opening scene has enough drama to kick off three separate movies — the wedding of Nishi to the chairman’s young daughter, who we see has a disability; her protective brother, who makes an awkward, drunken toast; the gossiping members of the press, expecting to catch one of the attending executives being arrested; and, finally, a mysterious cake shaped like the corporate headquarters — complete with an “X” marking the window through which an executive has thrown himself — being wheeled in to the outrage and embarrassment of everyone.
For a two-and-a-half-hour subtitled Japanese film about corporate corruption, The Bad Sleep Well is compelling, even though it gets slowed down by guilt and remorse concerning Nishi’s marriage of opportunity to the chairman’s daughter. Mifune is controlled and powerful as the single-minded Nishi, and with his dashing suits, slicked hair and glasses, he portrays an extremely different character than his role in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. But just as he did in that film, he’s as formidable as a man who gets increasingly mad as he finally gets even.