Japan | 166 min.
black & white
Akira Kurosawa, 1951
Akira Kurosawa’s The Idiot, his only adaptation of a Fyodor Dostoevsky novel, was a cherished project on which it is claimed he expended more effort than on any other film. A darkly ambitious exploration of the depths of human emotion, it combines the talents of two of the greatest Japanese actors of their generation — Toshiro Mifune (Seven Samurai, Yojimbo) and Setsuko Hara (Tokyo Story, Late Spring). The Idiot is perhaps the most contemplative of all Kurosawa’s works, a tone which is heightened by the unusual, trance-like performances.
Kurosawa’s electrifying dramatisation uproots the novel’s Russian Summer setting to a memorable, snowbound Hokkaido — the northern-most island of Japan, closest to Russia in climate and custom. War criminal Kameda (Masayuki Mori), reprieved from a death sentence, is fresh out of the asylum, mentally fragile, and prone to epileptic fits. In turn, his emotional involvement with two women (Setsuko Hara and Yoshiko Kuga) and his new, increasingly volatile friend Akama (Toshiro Mifune) leads further into madness and gross tragedy.
Filmed between Rashomon and Ikiru, Kurosawa poured himself into faithfully capturing the essence of his favourite author’s work — only to see it butchered by the studio. Never at all released in its original 266-minute form, the original Kurosawa edit was only ever shown once at the Japanese premiere and then re-edited by the studio prior to the official Japanese release the following week. In spite of Kurosawa’s own efforts to locate the original version in the studio’s vaults forty years later, his cut is now sadly considered lost. The Masters of Cinema Series is proud to present the longest extant version of this rarely seen film: the original 166-minute domestic release, as presented to the Japanese public in 1951.
“Of all my films, people wrote to me most about this one… …I had wanted to make The Idiot long before Rashomon. Since I was little I’ve liked Russian literature, but I find that I like Dostoevsky the best and had long thought that this book would make a wonderful film. He is still my favourite author, and he is the one — I still think — who writes most honestly about human existence.” – Akira Kurosawa
by YOSHIMOTO Mitsuhiro, 2006
In 1951, after the lukewarm [domestic] success of Rashomon, Kurosawa ventured on his next ambitious project, the film adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot [Hakuchi]. It is widely accepted that The Idiot is a failure because as an adaptation it is too superficially faithful to Dostoyevsky’s original. It is often regarded as a preliminary exercise for a masterpiece to follow, Ikiru, a film based on an original script, yet, according to a critical consensus, more faithful to Dostoyevsky’s spirit. Time and again, critics have declared that Dostoyevsky’s novels are impossible to adapt to film because they do not include many descriptions of physical environment and observable objects; that is, the predominance of dialogues and psychological descriptions makes Dostoyevsky’s novels unsuitable for film, which must show characters’ inner psychology mostly in concrete visual images. Detractors of the film also argue there is a fundamental difference between nineteenth-century Russia and contemporary Japan: the lack of deep-rooted Christian traditions in Japan makes it difficult to move the setting of the novel to Japan without destroying the reality effect of the original; the physical landscape of Hokkaido is in the end different from that of Russia despite some resemblance between the two; and Dostoyevsky’s characters are so utterly un-Japanese in their psychology and behaviour – for instance, many critics insist that in Japan there is no woman like Nasu Taeko (Nastasya Filippovna in the novel, played by Hara Setsuko in the film).
The Idiot was the second film Kurosawa agreed to make for Shochiku, but the relationship between the two was severely damaged because of their dispute over who should have a right to the final cut. Kurosawa originally edited the footage to a four-hour-and-twenty-five-minute version, but Shochiku pressured him to cut the length to two hours and forty-six minutes. The truncated version was still regarded too long for a commercial release, and Kurosawa was pressured to edit more scenes out of the film. On hearing Shochiku’s unreasonable demand, Kurosawa finally lost his temper and challenged Shochiku to cut the entire film in half lengthwise. Thus the existing film does not really convey the true sense of what Kurosawa tried to achieve. Although it is not unusual for a finished film to diverge from its original script, in he case of The Idiot, the difference between the film and the script is so extensive and artistically unjustified that it is not particularly fair to Kurosawa to discuss the available version of the film as a satisfactory realization of his artistic vision. For instance, the extensive use of intertitles and voice-over in the film, which is construed as evidence for Kurosawa’s inability to capture the feeling of Dostoyevsky’s novel, was not in the original script. Instead, they were inserted into the existing version by Kurosawa as a result of Shochiku’s demand that he cut the film’s length drastically.
As important as it is, this production background is not the only reason why most negative judgments about The Idiot are problematic. For instance, is Kurosawa’s adaptation indeed faithful to the original text by Dostoyevsky? [Donald] Richie argues that “Kurosawa’s faith in his author was so strong, so blind, that he seemed to feel that the mere act of photographing scenes from the novel would give the same effect on the screen as they do on the page.�? Similarly, [Stephen] Prince writes: “So strongly dialogue-bound an author seems to have compelled Kurosawa to work at the level of the actors’ performances, not of the image. With very few exceptions, the scenes are staged as they appear in the novel.�? But what exactly is the “mere act of photographing scenes from the novel�?? How is it possible to do that in the first place? Is such a transparent translation of the novel into film possible? [As with Stray Dog], Kurosawa is so well aware of the complex relationships between verbal discourse and visual representation that he would be the last filmmaker to believe naively in the possibility of simply “photographing scenes from the novel.�? It is certainly possible for us to compare the film and the novel closely by enumerating as many differences and similarities as possible. Yet unless we first establish some criteria by which we can differentiate a simple transposition of words into photographic images from a complex adaptation of the former to the latter, a mere comparison of Kurosawa’s film and Dostoyevsky’s novel (or to be more precise, its Japanese translation) does not tell us whether Kurosawa in fact photographs the novel’s verbally represented scenes faithfully. Kurosawa’s adaptation can be used as an occasion to ask fundamental questions concerning translation between different artistic media, cultures, and historical periods, but critics who slight The Idiot avoid addressing these questions. The extremely harsh judgment or simple dismissal of the film confirms prevalent interpretive codes of Japanese cinema criticism. Japanese adaptations of Western texts are often regarded as mere imitations; it is only when some uniquely Japanese codes of traditional culture are mixed with great Western originals that Japanese adaptations become worthy of praise and appreciation (e.g., the Western reception of Throne of Blood).
One thing that clearly stands out in The Idiot is the extensive use of close-ups showing the actors’ faces. Although Kurosawa is blamed for relying heavily on the close-up, I agree with Sado Tadao that the faces of the principal actors, those of Mori Masayuki and particularly Hara Setsuko, are extremely beautiful and even sublime. Admittedly, Kurosawa does not use Hara’s potential as much as Ozu does in his postwar films (e.g., Late Spring [Banshun, 1949], Early Summer [Bakushu, 1951], and Tokyo Story [Tokyo monogatari, 1953]). Ozu in general prevents his actors from showing off their acting skills, and he tries to get rid of any unnecessary expressions and movements from their performances in order to distill their own natural qualities as actors. In his relationship with actors, restraint becomes a dominant mode of direction, so that sometimes it looks as if Ozu prohibited actors from acting at all. Yet the result is truly astonishing when his direction is successful, as in Tokyo Story, where Hara Setsuko subtly shows an extraordinary range of complex feelings and emotions. We can recognize on the face of Hara what Béla Balázs calls the “polyphonic play of features,�? whereby “a variety of feelings, passions and thoughts are synthesized in the play of the features as an adequate expression of the multiplicity of the human soul.�? Ozu’s treatment of Hara is especially remarkable because her physiognomic features tempt Japanese directors to take an opposite approach; that is, her large eyes and clear-cut features for a Japanese – compare her face, for instance, to the face of Tanako Kinuyo – give directors a misleading cue that the best way to realize her talent is to make her overact rather than underact. Although Ozu remains aloof from this temptation, Kurosawa seems to succumb to it. In marked contrast to Ozu, Kurosawa exaggerates his actors’ performances and idiosyncratic mannerisms as much as possible, and his use of Hara in The Idiot is no exception. (Let us note here that there is nothing intrinsically “Japanese�? about Ozu’s formalistic restraint; nor is there anything “Western�? about Kurosawa’s penchant for dynamic exaggeration.) Kurosawa tries to use Hara’s unique physiognomic features through overacting and exaggeration partly to destroy the fixed screen image of Hara as a young lady of good breeding. But instead of increasing the expressive possibilities of Hara’s face, Kurosawa’s strategy seems to suppress all those possibilities. To this extent, various critiques of Hara’s performance in The Idiot are not completely unfounded. Yet what is important is that precisely because of the suppression of subtle emotional expressivity, Hara’s face is purified, and only a single emotional tone remains on her face. What appears on her face is a sense of noble sublimity that cannot be violated by any external forces. The uniqueness of Hara’s performance can be clarified by comparing her to Kyo Machiko, who plays the role of the samurai’s wife in Rashomon. Kyo Machiko can express as wide a range of feelings and emotions as Hara Setsuko, but there is a fundamental difference between the two as actresses. Even when she plays the role of a noblewoman, Kyo Machiko always has the touch of the common woman. What we see on the face of Kyo is the raw energy of a commoner who never gives up at a time of extreme adversity. In contrast, whether she plays the role of a commoner or a woman in a compromising situation, Hara Setsuko’s face expresses a nobility of spirit. What Hara brings to the role of Nasu Taeko in The Idiot is this sense of spiritual nobility, which I believe is captured in the close-up images of her face, even though – or sometimes precisely because – her facial expression is strained and exaggerated. Hara Setsuko as an actress will probably not be remembered for her role in The Idiot. But the film The Idiot will remain unforgettable for, among other things, the performance and close-up face of Hara.
Reprinted by kind permission of Duke University Press and the author
YOSHIMOTO Mitsuhiro — author of KUROSAWA, Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, [Duke University Press (2000) ISBN 0-8223-2519-5] — is Associate Professor of Japanese, Cinema, & Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa, USA.