Some relatively fragmented thoughts on this “social problem” or “social ills” film, post-WWII Japan, again, makes me think of Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, and the kind of disruption caused by the war and by Western occupation. For Western occupation also brings with it an imposition of modern Western cultural values, namely, corporate culture. Then again, it isn’t completely accurate to call corporate culture necessarily Western. I think what is happening here, in The Bad Sleep Well, is an uncomfortable confluence of the corporation and (maybe) modern rearticulations of samurai and feudal culture. Except here, the tight hierarchy of the corporation is without honor, this honor which I commonly associate with the tight social hierarchy of samurai culture.
I am interested here in the power (or lack thereof) of the individual within this tight corporate hierarchy, and whether or not there is room for one to serve his own (personal) interests. What are the consequences of this? Here, Toshirô Mifune’s character, Nishi, takes on the evils, the corruption of the corporation, in this interesting if not outdated agenda of vengeance, for he is the illegitimate son of a corporate lackey, who has been either coerced to commit suicide (is this a modern seppuku or harakiri, done in order to socially save face?) in order to maintain the honorable façade of the corporation, or his murder is made to appear as a suicide, though jumping out of a building’s seventh story window is hardly harakiri.
Anyway, I tend to wonder if this family vengeance thing is an outdated concept in this post-WWII setting, in which biological family is no longer intact, and in which the central institution is no longer family but corporation. So yeah, I think back on my previous post on Stray Dog, and how the war serves as a point of modern social disruption. Here, in The Bad Sleep Well, Nishi and his longtime friend Itakura, played by Takeshi Katô (who is not the same actor as Go Kato?), have had their adolescence interrupted as they have been called upon to work in a munitions factory; one of these has had to survive without his family, who were all killed in the war. Dispossessed as they are, with raw enterprising skills, they work their way up from nothing to becoming co-owners of a small, modest business. Honorable enough, but when Nishi decides to take on the evils of the corrupt corporation, he also resorts to underhanded tactics of trickery, starting with swapping identities with his longtime best friend (Toshirô’s Nishi is really Itakura, and that’s key, but maybe beside the point here), then marrying the crippled daughter of the corporate VP Iwabuchi in order to gain the confidence of the corporate executives, and quite importantly, access to their resources. Nishi becomes the secretary of the corrupt VP.
Here, Kurosawa’s casting of Toshirô is so right on, for in his quiet and unimposing role as the secretary, Toshirô is an already questionable fit, for his presence, his body, his stature are so not unimposing. He comes across to me as a Clark Kent-ish figure, this muscular and powerful hunk of a perfectly coifed, bespectacled man in a suit and an unassuming social position, and really, few words. And for the first 20 minutes or so of the film, as we are given background of this corporate scandal, we do not see Nishi at all, though we see there is someone of secret identity who is performing acts of subterfuge.
The dilemma here is a meaningful one, whether as the moral, idealistic, and righteous man taking down corrupt or evil corporate men devoid of honor must also possess or embody elements of this evil in order to be effective. And is “effective” simply taking down the individual men making deals in private places, or is it taking down the system itself? And how would he realistically and completely do this, since many if not all of those who comprise the corporation, as a matter of their livelihood and their very lives, are complicit, and so it seems this corruption is precisely how corporation exists in its most pure state. Corruption, therefore, is synonymous with corporation. And how high up does the corruption run, and could Nishi really access these much higher places; certainly the VP is just a VP and not the president. And to whom does the president answer? In other words, is there anyone within this structure who holds something like absolute power? And maybe that’s beside the point. I think the point here is whether we can differentiate between evil men and evil structures and institutions. And within these structures and institutions, is an individual man able to exercise any amount of his own good judgment and maintain his sense of morality.
Now, the VP Iwabuchi’s children are very interesting characters, for they have lived these lives of wealth and privilege because of their father’s corruption. The daughter (whom Nishi has married) chooses to remain oblivious to her father's evil deeds. I think the thinking here is that a young woman need not involve herself in the business of men. Her realm is the domestic realm. Her disabled status limits her mobility, hence her exposure to the changing and big world outside the domestic realm, furthers her dependence upon her father (and his control over her), and makes Nishi’s agenda in marrying her all the more questionable. It is only when her father deliberately deceives and manipulates her that she is jarred into this realization. The son, even while living this life as a spoiled rich boy, remains conflicted about his father's deeds. Still, early on in the film we question whether the son would forego his life of leisure and his social markers, the fact that he does not work, his hunting pastime, his expensive liquors, his flashy sportscar, etc. It’s clear these two would have to make a choice, so this also is a meaningful dilemma.
Another couple of things: the difference between morals and ethics? Where do “right” and “wrong” figure into these structures?
I realize in my copious, really not so fragmented thoughts, I have not at all mentioned the modern military, as I go on about the significance of this post-WWII setting, its shifting central institutions, and its tight hierarchies. Perhaps it is anachronistic to think of it this way, but for the Japanese military’s notoriety in committing wartime atrocities, and the continued disavowal (i.e. “following orders”) on the part of the individuals who comprised this particular hierarchy, how is this at all similar to the corporation and all of its complicit members, however low-ranking they may be. Again, this may be an anachronistic reading, given that the film was made in 1960, but I thought I’d put this out there as well.