November 18, 2008

The Idiot (1951 film)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Written by Eijiro Hisaita and Akira Kurosawa. Based on the novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Ever since he was a young man, Akira Kuroswa was an absolute fanatic when it came to the writings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. So it's no surprise that, from the moment he started work as a director in the film industry, his ambition was to put a faithful, loving adaptation of a Dostoyevsky classic up on the big screen. Sadly, it was not to be. At least, in part.

Kurosawa does succeed incredibly well in transferring the 19th century Russian novel to post-WWII Japan by keeping the story focused on the human drama and separation of the classes. It opens much the same way with a seedy man offering up a large dowry so he can marry off his young mistress, Taeko Nasu (Setsuko Hara). Her two suitors are Mutsu Kayama (Minoru Chiaki), a clerk only interested in the money, and Denkichi Akama (Toshiro Mifune), a rich thug who so passionately lusts for her that he's willing to not only forgo the dowry, but pay extra.

Into their midst comes Kinji Kameda (Masayuki Mori), a young man still recovering from a nervous collapse and recurring epileptic seizures. Though he starts out penniless, a sudden inheritance places him in an equal class to the surrounding characters. Yet such a change never alters his innocence, for this is a man who, while simple and naive, has a refusal to see the evil in people, which often brushes off on some, making them better people just for having known him, while simultaneous putting him on the wrong side of others.

Upon arriving in town, the first sight to catch his attention is a picture of Taeko, and all he can do is suffer at the sight of the anguish in her eyes. He wants nothing more than to meet this woman and be with her so he can help her through the pain and onto the road to happiness. But this not only places him at instant odds with Akama, but Taeko herself will have none of it. Sure, she's seduced by the kindness and respect he offers, but she fears she will only break this gentle lamb of a human being. So she's off with Akama, triggering the first of several episodes that will lead these three down some very dark paths.

Mori is wonderful as Kinji, the Prince Myshkin of this version. He's almost like an eager yet bashful puppy who looks people straight in the eye and offers up surprisingly acute observations of who they are deep beneath the masks of society. Though he overdoes it just a tad with hands loosely folded at his front, or sometimes clenched to his chest like a silent actor, there's something so genuinely pure in the depth of his gaze and the gentleness of his voice and touch.

On the opposite side of the emotional spectrum is Mifune as Akama. With his blazing brow and layered fur clothing, he tromps about like a lion in the fields, a flock of latch-ons and wanna-bes scrambling in his wake. Though he does go a little overboard with the growling sneer, it's no worse than he's done in the past and, you have to admit, Mifune does keep you riveted to the screen.

Hara is just marvelous as Taeko. One of Kurosawa's smartest decisions was to keep her clad in a sleek black cloak. When we first meet her, she looks like a stylish lady about town. As we then glimpse her through the Prince's eyes, she seems like a nun draped in the sorrow of a tragic life. As she goes down darker and darker roads, she ends up almost the image of a scowling, yet still strikingly beautiful, witch, her figure formless beneath the ebony shroud. As with all the roles, it's a perfect combination of cast, costume, and direction.

And let us not leave out Yoshiko Kuga as Ayako, the other woman in Kinji's life. Kuga captures the character of the book perfectly, eager to learn about the world and passionate about Kinji's affection, but tragically stuck with her mother's sarcasm and pessimism which clashes with the views of the man she loves.

Earlier, I said this dream of Kurosawa's was not to be, so allow me to elaborate. Kurosawa wrote, shot, and edited this as a 265 minute film intended to be released in two parts. The studio wasn't too thrilled with the idea, so they staged a negative screening which gave them the excuse to cut out 100 minutes (the length of a film itself) and release it as a single, three hour melodrama. And what a hack job they did, with jammed-in text screens, nonsensical voiceovers, and wipe after wipe after wipe after wipe... often over the course of a single scene.

And it's a shame they had to fuck things up for as gifted a man as Kurosawa, because he really works his magic. From the casting of the leads, to the lush, winter setting, to striking, detailed sets (Akama's cavern of a home is a superb standout), to the perfect staging of the book's most memorable scenes, he directs to the peak of his abilities. And I'm glad I read the original book because I can recognize some of the cuts that are still eluded to elsewhere, like the suicide attempt of a major character, or more stuff between Kinji and Ayako, or a pair of characters who were the prince's greatest allies in the novel, but are little more than cameos here.

Now, that's not to say it's all perfect. While I can see why he did it, I don't like Kurosawa revising the origin of the prince by having Kinji be a veteran who was almost executed in a prisoner of war camp. It does offer a nice opportunity to relate a tale from the book, but being on the fields of combat is just so not a part of this character. A more compelling variation (and a more accurate one) would be if Kinji was away, receiving treatment in a foreign country, since before the war. While the people of Japan had been through hell and back, he'd known nothing but kindness and peace, instantly creating both clashes and bonds with those he meets upon his return.

But that's about it in terms of complaints. It was a great book and could have been a fantastic movie had the studio just let Kurosawa have his way. I hear an organization has been formed in an attempt to hunt down whatever missing footage might still be out there. If they find some, I'd love to be among the first in line to give it a watch.

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