THE IDIOT (Akira Kurosawa, 1951)

There are some things we will never see. One is the complete, 9½-hour version of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), which Irving Thalberg, at M-G-M, had slashed to 2¼ hours, with the studio destroying for all time the balance of the footage during the Eisenhower era. Another is the complete, 4½-hour version of Hakuchi, Akira Kurosawa’s version of Dostoievski’s The Idiot, which, prior to its release, Shochiku had slashed to 2¾ hours. As with Greed, the studio destroyed the excised footage. Philistinism ruled in the U.S. and Japan during the 1920s and 1950s.

What remains of Hakuchi, though, is far more substantial than shards and glimmers. Kurosawa considered this his finest achievement (although he apparently made contradictory statements, since a reader of this blog asserts the opposite), and from what we have of it it’s easy to see why. Following the international success of Rashômon (1950), Kurosawa made one of the most beautiful films on earth—one as lyrical and captivating as it is precisely analytical. The images, now, are sometimes interrupted by leftward scrolls of text to fill in narrative gaps; but the experience remains profound and haunting. Hakuchi, Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954) and Spiderweb Castle (Kumo-no su-jō, 1957), which transposes Macbeth to medieval Japan, are the four works that most securely place Kurosawa in the pantheon of great Japanese film artists.

Kurosawa has artfully relocated the Dostoievski as well. The tragedy of soulful, honest Prince Myshkin, now called Kameda, has been moved from nineteenth-century St. Petersburg to wintry twentieth-century Hokkaido. But once again it all (in the case of the film, nearly) begins on a train, in a cramped third-class carriage, with two young passengers facing each other and entering into conversation—and, it turns out, a fatal acquaintanceship. These are Kameda and Akama—Myshkin and Rogozhin. In steerage on a steamer, where they met on an earlier leg of their trip, Kameda told Akama about his recurrent nightmare of being executed—this, following his having been mistaken by Americans as a war criminal and saved from death, with the correction of the error only at the last minute. Kurosawa’s version, then, unfolds in the present day, with the specter of U.S. power, post-World War II, still shadowing vulnerable human lives. The suggestion that Kameda’s life is, now, somehow extended beyond his appointed moment of death contributes to his aura of otherworldliness. “You are an odd man,” Akama will tell Kameda in Hokkaido.

Kurosawa’s update, curiously, has a faded nineteenth-century “feel” to it, perhaps because the incessant December snowfall helps blank out time. The implication is this: the war, coupled with Japan’s defeat, has had the effect, also, of blanking out time. The Idiot may be its Christian author’s most Christian novel, and this aspect doesn’t enter Kurosawa’s film—nor does it need to. Kameda remains Myshkin absent a Christian framework. Dostoievski: “My intention is to portray a truly beautiful soul”—one, we might add, who suggests a bit of authorial self-projection. (Myshkin, like his creator, is epileptic, for instance—in the film, the source of Kameda’s dementia, his “idiocy.”) Christian symbolism proves intrusive and awkward in a fine, famous film whose central character was at least partly inspired by Myshkin: Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960). Overt symbolism of any kind often works better on the printed page than on screen, where it may generate a schematic effect. Kameda’s kindness and innocence, his out-of-this-worldness, do not require that we mutter, “He is a Christian ideal—a saint, for which the world finds itself unprepared (again).” Kurosawa’s film is all the more effective for giving us, in Kameda, a Myshkin who lacks a readily recognizable antecedent; no longer do we suspect that a pattern of Christian myth dictates Myshkin’s tragic end. Indeed, Christianity is irrelevant to Kurosawa’s great admiration for Dostoievski, whom he called “my favorite author,” “the one . . . who writes most honestly about human existence.” It is this quality of Dostoievski’s masterpiece—apart from Tolstoi’s Anna Karenina, the greatest novel of the nineteenth century—that Kurosawa’s film most deeply reflects.

In Hokkaido, in front of a shop window, Akama and Kameda stand looking at a portrait of the woman who will both come between them and enjoin their fates: Taeko (in the novel, Nastasya Filippovna). The face in the portrait invites Akama’s lust and Kameda’s pity. How unhappy the beauty looks to Kameda, who can (perhaps!) see into her soul. (Let’s say, by contrast, Akama has sex-ray vision.) Both will pursue Taeko, one to provide spiritual comfort, the other to possess her. Akama’s pursuit, which is also financially reckless, costs him his father, who disowns him. Taeko is a kept woman; but General Ono, Akama’s relation, is arranging for his secretary, Kayama, to marry her. Meanwhile, Kayama is in love with Ono’s young, very modern daughter, Ayako, whom Kameda also will pursue romantically/platonically. We have here, then, two intersecting triangles: Kameda-Taeko-Akama; Kameda-Ayako-Kayama.

The shots in front of the shop window are extraordinary. In one, the camera at their backs, Akama and Kameda appear bodily real, the portrait of Taeko, to which they must look up in order to see it, appearing through the glass between the two men. In the next shot, though, the camera has been moved forward, and what we see is the portrait flanked by the reflections of the men in the glass. Here they appear like specters or phantoms—an ironical (pardon) reflection of how Taeko differently possesses both—while Taeko, in the shot a mere image, nonetheless by contrast appears more bodily real. The next shot reverts back to the camera placement and configuration of the first in this series of three shots (a triangle of shots!). On one level, we are prompted by the visual evidence to consider that Taeko, the object of Akama’s lust and Kameda’s concern, has so taken possession of them as to drain them of their sense of reality and of their sense of existential being, replacing them as the subject of their lives, converting them into variations of her object. Later, when Ayako wants very much to secure a romantic bond between herself and the normally attentive Kameda (I say “normally” because at one point, waiting for her on a park bench, he falls asleep!), she remarks that as a couple they are always in fact a threesome, referring to her rival, Taeko. Thus we become haunted by that earlier image of Taeko’s hovering portrait, much as Kameda and Ayako are haunted by Taeko’s invisibly hovering presence. Ayako is most successful at retaining a sense of self in the face of the challenge that Taeko’s invisible presence imposes. Kameda is less successful, perhaps because he spends considerable time in her actual presence. But Akama is least successful of all, wrongly believing that, because they live together and have sex, and because he is the man, after all, and she, the woman, he is the one in control, the possessor rather than the possessed. This is his delusion, and when he snaps, the forfeit will be Taeko’s life. Indeed, she, Akama and Kameda will all end up dead—a realization of the suggestion of death that permeates the middle shot in the series of three shots earlier in front of the shop window.

Hakuchi subtly envelops us spectators, making us feel we are slowly succumbing to a strange, steady snowfall. It is a film of white and grays and soft, diffuse light—a relatively unaffected, discreet visual style not at all like the turbulent, more stylized manner, with its deep contrasts of black and white and brilliant sunlight, in Kurosawa’s swooningly noirish Stray Dog (1949) and medieval Rashômon. In such a film, it is fitting that Taeko’s stabbing death happens offscreen. We aren’t even shown her corpse—ironic counterpoint to the degree to which Taeko took hold of Akama’s senses and, finally, directs him to his doom. This he shares with Kameda, and the moments of fraternal intimacy between two men who began as strangers and now will die together, huddled in a freezing shack, close the book on the film’s opening shots on the steamer. On one level, Akama is striking out at his perceived rival for Taeko’s affections; on another, after committing murder, he is hoping to bury himself in Kameda’s purity and natural nobility. He is hoping for redemption.

Toshio Ubukata’s cinematography, abetted by Akio Tamura’s contributions to the lighting of the film, helps Kurosawa create visual magic, as do So Matsuyama’s superlative production design, the sets by Genzo Komiya and Shohei Sekine, and the set decoration by Ushitaro Shimada. Another decisive contributor to the sheer beauty and haunting quality of the film is the music by Fumio Hayasaka.

What about the acting? Masayuki Mori plays “the idiot”; this is the finest performance of his career. Gérard Philipe, doubtless, was an even greater Myshkin five years earlier in Georges Lampin’s film of The Idiot, which I haven’t seen, and Yevgeni Mironov is tremendous in the role, giving one of the dozen or so greatest performances I have seen, in the eight-hour version directed by Vladimir Bortko (2003). In the meantime, Mori is marvelously human, as much in our world as in some finer one. Toshirô Mifune is astounding as Akama; along with his Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai, this is his greatest role. Chieko Higashiyama is shrewd and complex as Ayako’s mother, Satoko (in the novel, Elizaveta Prokofyevna Yepanchin). (I named Higashiyama 1951’s best supporting actress for her work here and in Yasujiro Ozu’s Early Summer.) Alas, I have my doubts about Setsuko Hara, whose cold, totemic, Joan Crawfordian Taeko seems the film’s one major weakness. Hara is, of course, a great actress (I named her best actress of 1949 in Ozu’s Late Spring, and best supporting actress of 1953 and 1961 in Ozu’s Tokyo Story and The End of Summer), and she certainly is entitled to give a bad performance every now and then. But why here?

Hara’s surprising inadequacy notwithstanding, Hakuchi—available on DVD, with English subtitles, from Hong Kong’s Panorama Entertainment—is something everyone should see. It captures the sweetness of the Prince and distills the inhospitality of life.

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