Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well is a masterclass in composition and lighting

This weekend, I finally got to watch The Bad Sleep Well, Akira Kurosawa’s 1960 dramatic thriller which was the first film to be produced by his own production company. While it’s his samurai films which I love the most, this one now ranks alongside 1963’s High and Low as one of his contemporary-set films that I would be happy to watch repeatedly.

Kurosawa’s signature wide shots and deep focus cinematography is less evident in this film, given most of the scenes take place indoors and have medium shots in close confines. Also less evident is movement – of people, elements of nature and the camera – so much a part of his most well-known films like Yojimbo and Seven Samurai.

What really comes through in scene after scene of The Bad Sleep Well is his skill at composition and lighting – a lot of it developed during his early years when he studied at the Doshisha School of Western Painting.

When it comes to composition, Kurosawa perhaps has no equal. He never wastes any of the available space on the screen…it’s always filled up with characters arranged geometrically – in triangles, in circles, all in a row, as a diagonal, and so on. He also uses the surroundings like houses, doors, windows, etc. to balance the on-screen composition.

I have captured below a selection of frames from the movie which illustrate this approach, irrespective of whether there are four, three or two people on screen, and one example of how he has created a dynamic, yet balanced composition with just one person. There are a couple of examples of chilling noir lighting as well. Enjoy!

The triangle of evil – Corrupt Vice President Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori) flanked by his two partners-in-crime
The triangle of justice – Iwabuchi’s son-in-law, Koichi Nishi (Japanese acting icon, Toshiro Mifune) flanked by his friend Itakura (Takeshi Kato) and whistle-blower Wada (Kamatri Fujiwara)
The triangle of good and bad – Nishi (Mifune) and Itakura (Takeshi Kato) put pressure on corrupt administrative officer Moriyama (played by Kurosawa regular, Takashi Shimura)
Diagonal composition – Nishi, Itakura and Wada in a contemplative mood – one of the few outdoor scenes in the movie. They are arranged in order of ‘importance’ and applying the “rule of thirds”, the main character Nishi is in the dominant location in the left third of the frame.
One against three – A clear separation between the corrupt Moriyama on the left and the justice-seeking trio of Itakura, Nishi and Wada. Bad guy Moriyama is in the dark part of the screen. Good guy Nishi gets most of the light.
The mirror creates balance in the composition and expresses the conflict within the character
– Vice President Iwabuchi can barely look at himself as he contemplates his evil actions.
Geometric separation – Nishi and his wife Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa, star of Tokyo Story and Sansho the Bailiff)
Coming to terms with the fact that they are separated by their loyalties.
So near, yet so far – another visual expression of the separation between husband and wife, and the hopelessness of their situation.
Noir lighting for one – corrupt contract officer Shirai (Ko Nishimura) feels hunted at every step.
Following the Rule of Thirds, he is placed to the left third of the frame.
Noir lighting for two – Nishi and Wada in an unused underground shelter.
The lighting comes from a circular hole in the ceiling open to the sky.

And here’s a short video that explains this approach of ‘geometric composition’ from the perspective of a particular scene in the movie; created by Tony Zhou who used to run the much-loved YouTube channel Every Frame a Painting during 2014-16. Watch the analysis and better yet, watch the movie!

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