Tom Vick is curator of film at the Freer|Sackler.
In his 1965 book The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Donald Richie claimed that the director’s 1960 film The Bad Sleep Well was based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The similarities, after all, are clear. Both feature an ambivalent hero on a quest for revenge. Kurosawa himself named Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare his favorite authors, and Hamlet and Macbeth (which he adapted in 1959 as Throne of Blood) his favorite plays. In addition, Richie’s deep knowledge of Japanese culture and personal friendship with Kurosawa made his book the authoritative guide to the filmmaker’s work.
Thirty years later, Japanese Shakespeare scholar Kaori Ashizu questioned Richie’s theory. In her 1995 essay “Kurosawa’s Hamlet?” Ashizu suggests that Richie’s rarely questioned interpretation detracts from The Bad Sleep Well’s importance as a daring attack on the corrupt corporate culture of the time. While acknowledging similarities in plot, she points out that the true parallels don’t emerge until halfway through the film, so those going into it primed for a modern-day Japanese Hamlet adaptation will be disappointed. She further argues that previous scholars worked a bit too hard to find Hamlet-like qualities in the film’s hero, Nishi (played by the great Toshiro Mifune), and bent over backwards to find exact counterparts in the play for other characters in the film.
Still, she does see a distinct parallel between the venal business executives the film assails and Denmark’s rotten court. This intrigues me because it indicates just how deeply ingrained Hamlet is in both Western and Japanese culture. In another essay, Ashizu sketches a history of the play’s influence in Japan, from its first mention in 1841 through kabuki versions, modern stage adaptations, and various translations and interpretations of the play within a Japanese context.
For Harold Bloom, author of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Hamlet is that rare character who transcends his own play, possessing an intelligence, wit, and depth beyond not only his fellow characters, but us as readers and playgoers, and perhaps even Shakespeare himself. He’s not so much a fictional character as he is a mythological figure (Bloom compares Hamlet’s status to that of Helen of Troy, Odysseus, and Achilles), deeply entwined with our development as a culture.
Ashizu notes “the long-lasting idolatry” of Hamlet “among young men of letters” in Japan. The intellectual Kurosawa certainly absorbed some of him. How much Hamlet is there in The Bad Sleep Well, and how much Hamlet is there in its hero, Nishi? You can judge for yourself when the film screens this Sunday.