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TCM Imports - July 2018
Remind Me

The Idiot (1951) aka Hakuchi

"This story tells the destruction of a pure soul by a faithless world." Fyodor Dostoyevsky was one of Akira Kurosawa's favorite novelists and a great influence on the director; he had long wanted to make his novel The Idiot into a film. After completing Rashomon (1950), he finally embarked on his passion project, which he transposed from 19th century Russia to a contemporary Japanese setting. Where Kurosawa took great liberties in adapting subsequent western works into Japanese contexts, from Shakespeare (Throne of Blood, 1957, and Ran, 1985) to Maxim Gorky (The Lower Depths, 1957) to Ed McBain (High and Low, 1963), here he remained almost totally faithful to the original novel.

In Kurosawa's The Idiot (1951), the novel's epileptic Prince Myshkin, returning to St. Petersburg from an asylum in the provinces, became former soldier and World War II veteran Kameda, returning home to Hokkaido after a harrowing ordeal in a prisoner of war camp. Played by Masayuki Mori (who had just played the husband in Kurosawa's Rashomon), Kameda is wide-eyed, open-faced, completely trusting and innocent. He appears incapable of telling a lie or concealing a truth, and in the first scene he practically pours out his story to the gruff Akama (Toshiro Mifune), who is won over by this man's instinctive innocence and immediately befriends him. Unfortunately, both men become rivals for the affections of the same woman: Taeko (Setsuko Hara, of Kurosawa's No Regrets for Our Youth, 1946), a rich man's mistress with a reputation as a wicked woman of notoriety. Akama has been obsessed with this beautiful but manipulative woman since before the war while the saintly Kameda, who only sees her sadness and pain, accepts her as she is. Their story plays out in a tainted world of corruption and thievery and impropriety, a kind of tarnished aristocracy relocated to the Japanese provinces. The result is an odd mix of Russian chamber drama and Kurosawa social drama.

To justify the western slant of the drama and character behavior, Kurosawa set The Idiot in Japan's northernmost province Hokkaido, where contact with Russia has influenced the local culture over the centuries. Tables and chairs are far more common than tatami mats here and the wardrobe and settings are more western than Japanese. The northern climate and winter setting also gave Kurosawa the opportunity to further enhance the atmosphere with a chilly climate and wintry landscape. In addition, the soundtrack borrows classical themes from Russian composers.

Kurosawa's original cut of The Idiot ran almost four and a half hours and the director may have intended the film to be shown in two parts (a common practice at the time). Under pressure from the studio, Shochiku, Kurosawa edited The Idiot down to around three hours for its premiere. The studio subsequently cut the film down even more, to 166 minutes, without the director's participation or approval. With much of the footage cut from the opening of the film, wordy explanatory intertitles and a voice-over narrator were added to fill in the backstory, giving the film an awkward beginning.

"I don't think I have ever put more of myself into any other picture," claims the director of this labor of love project, yet the ordeal with the studio and the disappointing release apparently soured him on The Idiot by the time he wrote his autobiography, where it received barely a paragraph. "The Idiot was ruinous. I clashed directly with the studio heads, and then when the reviews on the completed films came out... they were scathing." Yet Kurosawa's passion comes through in his creative solution to the challenge of long dialogue scenes, where his subtle camerawork and dynamic blocking of actors brought a new expressiveness to his direction, and in the gentle beauty of the snow-covered location footage, creating an atmosphere both delicate and chilly.

Noel Burch wrote that the film is "probably the only adaptation of Dostoyevsky to the screen which carries something of the complexity and dramatic intensity of the original." And almost all Kurosawa historians maintain that, failure or not, The Idiot led the way to the intense intimacy and compassion of his masterpiece Ikiru (1952, a film "in the Dostoyevsky manner," in Kurosawa's own words) and other personal dramas in his rich career.

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Eijiro Hisaita, Akira Kurosawa; Fyodor Dostoyevsky (novel "The Idiot")
Cinematography: Toshio Ubukata
Art Direction: Takashi Matsuyama
Music: Fumio Hayasaka
Film Editing: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Setsuko Hara (Taeko Nasu), Masayuki Mori (Kinji Kameda), Toshiro Mifune (Denkichi Akama), Takashi Shimura (Ono, Ayako's father), Chieko Higashiyama (Satoko, Ayako's mother), Chiyoko Fumiya (Noriko), Eijiro Yanagi (Tohata), Yoshiko Kuga (Ayako), Minoru Chiaki (Mutsuo Kayama, the secretary), Eiko Miyoshi (Madame Kayama), Noriko Sengoku (Takako), Mitsuyo Akashi (Madame Akama).

by Sean Axmaker