I have heard of this movie also being called The Worse You Are, the Better You Sleep but had not heard of The Rose in the Mud. We are covering this film this week in my 218 (Introduction to Literature and Film) class in conjunction with Hamlet.
There has been plenty of argument on the side that TBSW is not in fact an adaptation of Hamlet. But when I sandwich it between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Hamlet (2000), I firmly believe that my case is made. I don’t remember everything about The Lion King, but that is cited as a Hamlet adaptation. I think it brings up some great points about adaptation. The way the characters get split (Claudius becomes three characters), removed (no Gertrude), and remade (Nishi’s identity obfuscation with Itakura). That the plot is in medias res with that absolutely exquisite 20 minute no-holds-barred wedding sequence. Kurosawa knitting an intricate plot about government corruption into his version would I think have made Shakespeare salivate a bit. I think of the requisite pride imposed by the Master of Revels on plays of Shakespeare’s time. You can’t set a plot about bad governance in England. You need to set it elsewhere: Vienna, Venice, Verona, Denmark, Scotland. Because bad governance doesn’t happen in England. Kurosawa doesn’t shy away from where he sees the problem.
Shakespeare tries to get at the issue of a court in disarray. Hamlet bemoans the drinking in the court (“This heavy-headed revel east and west / Makes us traduced and tax'd of other nations: They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase / Soil our addition; and indeed it takes / From our achievements, though perform'd at height, / The pith and marrow of our attribute.”), but his dad’s only been dead four months. They are “tax’d of other nations.” While Hamlet Sr. may have been a fighter in his younger days, “smot[ing] the sledded Polack” and combating Norway, Denmark’s been on the decline since then. How else can Fortinbras pose such a serious threat? I know it’s a lot of text to wade through, but Hamlet gives so many clues about what is actually going on versus what we see going on. It’s like the inside digs taken in Henry V. The narrator is boasting, but what we see is different.
And that was the reality for Kurosawa. He was sick and tired of compromising to please Toho. Or Toho was sick and tired of him going over schedule and over budget. Probably a combination of the two. Read Something Like an Autobiography (if you like Kurosawa, you should do this anyway). He started his own company for a bit more autonomy. Just like Pickford, Chaplin, Griffith and others who founded United Artists back in 1919. It was a significant shift to go from popular samurai movies to TBSW. He purposefully chose this movie because he didn’t want people to think this new company was just about making more money. If Kurosawa really formed the company for monetary purposes, this first film was not a step in that direction.
I see that this is sometimes categorized as film noir, which I think is an odd distinction that I don’t agree with. Yes, it involves a crime. But Nishi has agency. Indeed, he is trying to control everything. He isn’t always successful, but he is the main agent provocateur in the film. Characters in film noir have no control. They are being controlled and overridden. There are scenes at night and a dark tone, but no femme fatale. It just doesn’t ring true to me.
I just keep thinking about how ballsy it was for Kurosawa to make this movie. Often he is cited as being more popular outside of Japan than inside, because he was such the nail sticking out. That doesn’t fly well in Japan, where a uniform conformity is the mindset. But the beginning of the 1960s was a weird time for Japan, with the student riots against treaties with America, the rightist movement for rearmament. I had to give a quick look to see what my hero, Yukio Mishima, was writing in 1960: After the Banquet. That was the one that Mishima got sued for because it smacked too closely of politician Hachiro Arita’s real life, and Arita won (but, in effect, given all the publicity the case got, winning was losing). Mishima was ballsy too, but that goes without saying.
I think Nishi kind of looks like Clark Kent in the movie, which matches well given that Kent was Superman’s alter ego / identity. Nishi has one, too, but he’s no super hero. However, what he is doing is highly heroic: exposure of government and private fixed contracts, taxpayer money being appropriated, and people being silenced (in a truly Japanese way – don’t besmirch the higher-ups, fall on your sword for the greater glory). That is why the ending to TBSW is infinitely more galling than Hamlet. Yes, a king was murdered by his brother. But you know what? Hamlet was next in line. He was of age. He had legal cause to be king, no matter who Claudius married. WHY THE FUCK DIDN’T HAMLET CLAIM WHAT WAS HIS??? Too busy sulking in a corner? Pathetic. Nishi’s plan, while elaborate and full of places to go awry, is noble. That the bad guys get away with it and Nishi is murdered is gut-wrenching. And more realistic. This film is depressing.
I’m always a bit wary when I show this film to students. It is black and white. It is 2 ½ hours long. It is in Japanese. It’s sort of cruel in a way (“What, you can’t understand Shakespearian English? Ok, how about Japanese?”). But the film is EXCELLENT. It is a bit of culture shock – Japanese actors have a much different delivery of acting on film than American actors. Ebert does a good job of articulating this in his review of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, where the combination of the two regions of actors is in much starker contrast. And it is haunting. I thought the internet was powerful, but it let me down today. I have been trying to find out what tune Nishi whistles. Was it a song that was part of popular culture at the time in Japan? All I can find on soundtrack listings is “Nishi’s Whistle 1” and “Nishi’s Whistle 2.” There’s a post on IMDb asking the question back in 2007, which no one replied to. Perhaps it was dreamed up by the film’s composer Masaru Satô or a creation by Mifune, but for days after I see the film, I have that tune stuck in my head.