Too Many Motives, Not Enough… Moat?: I Watch “The Bad Sleep Well”

Sometimes you just can’t find the right headline for your post.

Anyway, I recently watched Akira Kurosawa’s epic tale of postwar building corruption, The Bad Sleep Well. It’s mostly great! The opening scene, at a tense paparazzi-stalked wedding, is unforgettable. Most of the characters are on a wildly tilting seesaw of conscience and complicity: wastrel heir Tatsuo, fearful and sheltered heiress Yoshiko (who’s mostly a pawn, not a person, but she’s an interesting pawn), mysterious newcomer Koichi, and corporate catspaw Wafa, among others. The bombed-out ruins where much of the final act takes place not only make a visually-exciting backdrop, but they also underscore the reasons construction is such a high-stakes industry at this place and time. Corruption in the postwar recovery has a whiff of war profiteering, even treason.

The middle section was the weakest, for me, and that’s mostly because of something adjacent to the point Graham Greene makes here about “establishing” plot/character points. The problem with The Bad Sleep Well is that everything has a motive, an explanation, and the midsection is where we find out what those motives are. There’s a reason an outsider is seeking vengeance on the corrupt company; there’s a reason the sister is disabled, and a reason the brother shelters here. There’s no room for unhappy chance–or normal human motives which need no explanation, like love for your sibling or anger at injustice.

And so instead of the jolting movements of life, you can suddenly tell that you’re inside a well-oiled machine constructed by an author, where every gear slips smoothly into place.

Fortunately once the explanations are out of the way the film can settle down into melodrama. And as melodrama it’s satisfying–the cringing, tormented villains make the title bluntly ironic–although it never returns to the heights of that opening scene.

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