I had hoped to write more posts here about books, but I haven’t read anything good in a while. In fact, the last two books I started, I stopped reading halfway through. Both happened to be crime novels, as I fancied a bit of plot-driven genre fiction. The first was by a contemporary Irish writer; it was well-reviewed and successful, but the plot got a bit far-fetched for my taste. I don’t want to be mean and name the writer — after all, I could cross them in the supermarket here in Dublin some day, which would be much more plausible than the contrivances and coincidences in their novel.
No such qualms about identifying the other novelist; it was Georges Simenon, who apparently wasn’t a nice guy and in any case is long gone. The novel in question was the first of his Maigret books, and while the writing and translation were certainly of good quality, the plot this time just bored me. You need to find the damp drudgery of shadowing suspects intrinsically exciting, or at least feel that the pay-off will make it all worthwhile. I found Maigret quite putdownable.
Maybe I’m being unfair on both. The last few weeks have also been cross-country season for me and I had three tough championship races. I’ve been tired.
This year in athletics will, of course, go on to feature the Olympics in Tokyo, and perhaps my tired brain has jumbled TV Olympic previews and those unfinished crime novels. Whatever the reason, I wanted to watch Japanese crime drama The Bad Sleep Well, or as I like to call it, 悪い奴ほどよく眠る.
What’s more, it was directed by Akira Kurosawa, Mister Japanese Cinema himself, who also made the official film of the last Tokyo Olympics, in 1964. You might know the most famous sequence from that Olympic documentary: Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia striding metronomically down a Tokyo highway on his way to retaining the marathon title while a brave Irish athlete called Jim Hogan (né Cregan), the only other competitor to try and match Bikila’s pace, staggers to a halt and forlornly pleads with spectators to get him some water. It’s the running footage that Dustin Hoffman’s character is watching at the start of Marathon Man, that ripe ’70s tale in which vague international espionage meets precision Nazi dentistry.
I chose The Bad Sleep Well for another slightly selfish reason. Kurosawa’s best-known classics, such as Ran (despite the title, not a film about running) and Seven Samurai, clock in at over two and a half hours and, well, I have chores to do, races to run and crime novels to half-read. As a comparison, Bikila finished that Tokyo Olympic marathon in 2 hours and 12 minutes. But the cover of my copy of The Bad Sleep Well on DVD gives its running time at a more manageable 105 minutes, or an hour and three-quarters — in Kurosawa terms a relative sprint.
Turns out that sprint was a misprint; The Bad Sleep Well actually lasts for 150 minutes. So they suckered me into two-and-a-half hours after all!
A marathon, then, but is it a Bikila-style triumph or a Hogan-esque falter? Well, for the most part The Bad Sleep Well strides purposefully and economically towards glory, only right at the end to hit the dreaded Wall.
Plot-wise, my two crime novelists could have learned a lot from it about pacing and development. The Dairyu Corporation, which deals in public construction and not milk or cheese, is up to its oxters in corruption and kickbacks, but the net is closing in around them. Harassed executives have taken to jumping out windows, under trucks and even into volcanoes. The corporation president’s daughter, Yoshiko, is getting married, but the reception is soured by the presence of dogged police detectives, cruel journalists (who cram in all the exposition we need in the film’s opening minutes) and the mysterious delivery of a macabre wedding cake modelled on the building from which one of those executives jumped. Lest there be doubt, a rose on the cake marks the very window. Meanwhile the groom, Nishi, an intense and ambitious employee of the corporation, sits impassively at the top table. What’s going on in his mind? The whole affair reveals itself in gradual, glorious detail.
Technically, and as you’d expect from a bona fide auteur, The Bad Sleep Well is visually stunning. Watch out for any scenes with two or three characters; their blocking and interaction is almost painterly in its composition. The larger set-pieces, such as the wedding reception, seem arranged to draw your eye around the screen, from foreground to background or from side to side, so that you feel present in the room. Kurosawa also throws in some odd angles — shooting upwards from around waist-height at times — that heighten our scrutiny of the characters. Plus, there’s some well-judged symbolism with windows, mirrors, spectacles and doors.
As well as being a tale of white-collar crime, The Bad Sleep Well is a story about identity. Kurosawa’s characters are in constant conflict with their suffocating social roles, and he makes great use of their eyes as tools of expression, realisation or deception. It’s also a revenge plot, and we know from Hamlet (on which this film is loosely based) that revenge never ends well for anyone. The strangely jaunty score, slightly reminiscent of The Third Man’s zithery air of nervous bonhomie, also serves to lead you along on that front.
The only real mis-step in the film is in its resolution — not the fact of the resolution itself (as you can surmise from its Hamlet influence, there’s only one way this film is going to end) but the perfunctory way that it’s done, off camera and all. Maybe it’s the whim of the auteur to end the thing as they see fit and make their point, but I didn’t get a sense of the plot ending being driven by the characters. It’s a shame to go 145 minutes along the way with them, to invest in their personalities and their emotions, only to spend the last 5 minutes with a director effectively going “but enough about them; everybody listen to me”. Or maybe even Kurosawa was starting to find 150 minutes a bit of a drag.
Still, The Bad Sleep Well is worth watching. Here’s the trailer: