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Film Club: The Idiot (1951)

The IdiotThis March, the Akira Kurosawa film club film of the month is Kurosawa’s 1951 work The Idiot (白痴, Hakuchi).

The Idiot is perhaps best known for two things. Firstly, it is often (but not always!) considered to be among the weakest of Kurosawa’s films. Secondly, it is notorious for having been heavily re-edited from Kurosawa’s original vision. According to Galbraith (144-145), Kurosawa’s original cut ran for 265 minutes and was intended to be shown in two parts. But considering the film too long, the studio (Shochiku) forced Kurosawa to edit The Idiot down to 180 minutes for its premiere. This version was shown only once, after which the studio proceeded, without Kurosawa’s involvement, to cut the film further down to its current 166 minute running time. To the best of everyone’s knowledge, and despite Kurosawa’s own attempts in the early 90s to dig up the original negatives at Shochiku, the only version that exists today is the 166 minute cut, which many consider incoherent and difficult to follow.

In addition to suffering because of the above mentioned editing process, The Idiot has also been faulted for the way in which it handles its source text, Dostoevsky’s novel of the same name. Many critics, starting with Richie, have criticised Kurosawa’s adaptation for being so faithful to the original work that it results in a film that has more literary than cinematic qualities, and which replicates the content but not the spirit of its source. The film has also been criticised for failing to properly transport what is essentially a very Russian story into a Japanese setting. With this in mind, Yoshimoto considers the film a good occasion “to ask some fundamental questions concerning translation between different artistic media, cultures, and historical periods” (192).

In his discussion of The Idiot, Yoshimoto also mentions the film’s prominent use of close-ups and what he calls “over-acting”, attributing the latter especially to Setsuko Hara, whose performance in The Idiot he compares unfavourably to the those that she gave under Yasujiro Ozu. This is, he notes, a comparison that may give us a glimpse into the different methods of film making employed by Kurosawa and Ozu. And Yoshimoto is certainly not the only one criticising Hara’s performance: Galbraith has gone as far as to call her work on the film bordering on “camp”. (146) Having said that, Galbraith also quotes writer Sergei Hasencz, who has argued that Hara was purposely cast against type in The Idiot and that this decision could have worked, had the film itself been better. We too should think about Hara’s performance here as well as in Ozu films like Late Spring, which we watched last August, and of course Early Summer, which we will be watching after The Idiot next month.

It should also be interesting to compare the actors’ performances in The Idiot to those that the same actors have given in other films by Kurosawa. Galbraith, for instance, notes that Masayuki Mori’s performance as the idiot is particularly bland and fails to properly convey the characters saintliness, a marked difference from his similarly restrained but arguably more effective performance as the husband in Rashomon. Galbraith also points his finger at Toshiro Mifune, whom he sees as being “so obviously uncomfortable in [his part as a hot-blooded lover that] he’s difficult to watch at times”. (146)

If it seems that much of the film criticism focusing on The Idiot concentrates on the film’s faults, it is only because that indeed appears to be the case. But this certainly doesn’t mean that there isn’t place for more constructive discussion of the film. One obvious topic is the already-mentioned relationship the film has with the original text, and on a larger level, Kurosawa’s relationship with Russian literature and Soviet film in general. On this note, Yuna De Lannoy has written an article on The Idiot, which was published in the Journal of Japanese & Korean Cinema in 2010 and which I have not yet had the chance to read, but which based on its abstract looks at the film’s influences both with Dostoevsky as well the film making theory and practice of Sergei Eisenstein in mind. And speaking of the Journal of Japanese & Korean Cinema, their December 2009 issue includes another related essay, this one by Olga V. Solovieva, who looks at the film in the context of post World War II trauma and the pursuit of a new modernism.

It may in fact be quite relevant to look at the film in terms of post-war world, and especially contemporary Japanese society. Sorensen, who acknowledges that it is difficult to talk about Kurosawa’s intentions with The Idiot considering that we cannot see the full film as originally intended, nevertheless points out that in Kurosawa’s version the main character (the idiot) is a repatriated soldier. Sorensen then adds that while Dostoevsky’s novel harshly criticised the influence that European capitalism was having on Russia at the time of the novel’s writing, Kurosawa’s film may in fact have intended to do something similar. Sorensen then goes on to speculate whether the studio-mandated cuts may in fact have at least on some level been a pre-emptive attempt to remove material that would not have passed through occupation sensors, and could even have got the studio in trouble. Unfortunately, no censorship documents for the film seem to have survived. (208-209)

While this is pure speculation, it would indeed be interesting to know whether more was going on behind the scenes than has been openly mentioned. All we know is that the released film was heavily cut, the negatives have most probably been destroyed, and that after the release of the film Shochiku decided not to make use of their contractual option to have Kurosawa film also his next work at the studio. Later, Kurosawa would often mention that following the failure of The Idiot, he was resigned to “eat cold rice” for the rest of his life, suggesting that he was effectively considered a persona non-grata for the Japanese studio system, only to be suddenly rescued from oblivion by Rashomon‘s sudden success at Venice. Now, while The Idiot had been a failure and neither of his previous two films Rashomon or Scandal had been enormous successes, one does wonder whether that alone would really have been enough to destroy Kurosawa’s career? Could there indeed have been weightier reasons behind Kurosawa’s momentary expulsion, or was Kurosawa later exaggerating the situation that he found himself? While I must stress that all this is total speculation, it is interesting to note that The Idiot‘s release and Kurosawa’s troubles in 1951 coincide with the red purge that stopped the careers of a number of film makers, including Mitsuo Wakasugi, the assistant director for Rashomon.

For Kurosawa himself, The Idiot remained a positive memory despite the problems associated with its production and the hostile reviews that followed its release. From all of his films, he claimed to have received most letters for The Idiot, and all in all considered that he had made an entertaining film. In his view, he had not only succeeded in what he had wanted to do with the source material, but judged that he had also become a much stronger film maker as a result. And it is clear that the film was precious to Kurosawa already at the time of its writing: Kurosawa’s mentor Kajiro Yamamoto has for instance recounted how Kurosawa wrote the script not with a pencil and a notebook as he usually did, but with a calligraphy brush, ink and a two-meter-long rolled letter paper. (Galbraith, 144)

Last time we discussed The Idiot was in May 2009, and it generated a fair amount of discussion:

General discussion
Could it have been salvaged?
The double wipe

Other earlier discussion related to The Idiot can be found here, while information about the commercial availability of the film can be found from the DVD guide. I look forward to hearing your views on this perhaps lesser, but by no means less interesting part of Kurosawa’s oeuvre!

Next month, we will be watching Ozu’s Early Summer. For information about that film’s availability and the full film club schedule, see the film club page.


Discussion

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Amnesty11

It took me longer than I thought to get around to watching this. By all accounts this film is considered one of Kurosawa’s weakest efforts, and I guess we will never know if it would have achieved greatness if it weren’t for all the required cuts. I didn’t expect to like it much and thought there might be giant jumps in storyline and gaps in character development that would make the movie flat.

However, going into the film knowing that, set me up in a sort of reverse psychology. (The opposite just happened to me when I went to see The Artist this weekend. So much hype and I ended up being hugely disappointed in it).

Here are my brief notes…

My main attraction to the film was Masayuki Mori’s beautiful, empathic character, which I found mesmerizing. I understand why the general feeling is that it was a fairly bland performance. However, for me there was a calm and very pure energy that got under my skin. So much so that Mr. Mori appeared in quite a few of my dreams the next two nights (in one we were skiing together in Utah…it was very heavenly imagery, which I’m sure was symbolic of his saintly character in the film). Although it may not have been Mori’s strongest lead (by far) there was something in his interpretation that resonated with me.

Mifune, playing Bluto throughout, was a great disappointment. Except for his hair. His hair never disappoints me…I agree with Galbraith that it was clear that Mifune was uncomfortable in the role. He seemed only to be able to flesh it out enough to make it barely two dimensional.

In reading later about Setsuko Hara, and her role as “eternal virgin” in the minds and hearts of the Japanese of the time period, I am a little befuddled. Her overacting was horrendous, and to the contemporary Western eye, I found her rather so-so on the attractive scale. I can’t quite understand her appeal, so am looking forward to next month’s movie selection.

So amazing to see Mifune and Mori together in such contrasting roles to the parts they played in Rashomon. Fascinating.

Dostoevsky’s Prince was symbolically a saint. For Buddhists the equivalent term is bodhisattvas or “selfless spiritual awakeners.” Do we know if the Japanese saw the character Kameda as a bodhisattva? Are his empathic abilities considered something to aspire to? In the Christian culture, we are asked to aspire to be Christlike.

Kurosawa’s (and I’m sure Dostoevsky’s) contrast of all the “idiots” in the story vs. our hero Kameda-san. Kayama, Tohata, Akama… Akama’s okaasan….the world is full of idiocy. But is Kameda really someone we should admire? Doesn’t he cause pain all around him? Does he really solve anything for anyone? What is the result of his presence? An awakening by the young daughter, I guess. And the assumption that the audience will awaken also to their own idiocy, and begin to look for, and act on, the purity and saintliness within? This of course must be symbolic of Japanese post-war shame.

I loved the death scene of Mifune and Mori. Quite beautiful, arms around each other, joined together – two opposites, lovers almost, they become whole.

The film did feel luggy and cumbersome at times — not the seamless, smooth filmmaking I’m used to seeing from Kurosawa-sama. However, even if it may be considered one of the clunkiest in his repertoire, The Idiot still did for me what all of his films have done so far: created a hum under my skin. Gets me every time.

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Ugetsu

I’ve been very busy this month, I only just watched it last night. Its my second viewing and while my opinion of The Idiot has risen a bit, I’m still somewhat perplexed by much of the film, not least what it is trying to say.

In all honesty, I find it very hard to see the Kurosawa of Rashomon or Seven Samurai or numerous other great films in it. What rankles so much with me is that in so many scenes, the blocking and editing seems poor. There is none of the beautiful unobtrusive flow that I am used to seeing with Kurosawa films. I thought some of the individual scenes were almost amateurish. I really think that if I’d been shown this film without being told Kurosawa made it, I would have said ‘the director has some talent at set pieces, but otherwise doesn’t have control over the material, this isn’t a top grade director at work’. The particular disappointment is that I think that ironically, it could have done with another rigorous edit – for me there are a lot of scenes that just go on too long, and sections that could have been excluded. It may of course be that the crude cut by the studio disturbed the overall flow. That said, there are individual sections and scenes which are very beautiful.

While I appreciate that Kurosawa was trying to recreate the expressionistic acting of the silent era, I think he forgot that you should not mix this with a very dialogue heavy script. The combination of long periods of exposition (as you would expect from a Russian novel), along with all those close-ups and dramatic acting resulted in too much over-the top melodrama. I don’t think Kurosawa did his actors any favours at all. The best acted scenes were the gentler scenes where the actors just go on with it. I couldn’t help, for example, compare the dramatic drawing room scene with Kurosawa’s far superior blocking and editing in later films of similar scenes in The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low. Perhaps on reflection he learned his lesson? Or perhaps those scenes as written down really could not be made coherent.

Amnesty

Dostoevsky’s Prince was symbolically a saint. For Buddhists the equivalent term is bodhisattvas or “selfless spiritual awakeners.” Do we know if the Japanese saw the character Kameda as a bodhisattva? Are his empathic abilities considered something to aspire to? In the Christian culture, we are asked to aspire to be Christlike.

I wonder if this is the reason for the scene where the two men sit with Akama’s senile mother at the alter? Perhaps the intention of this is that the equally simple minded woman saw what nobody else did – that he is a bodhisattva, hence she gave him the cake offering intended for the Buddha. Its interesting that in that scene we are not shown Kamedas face, only his back.

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Longstone

I managed to sit and watch the film yesterday , it’s been a tempting month for japanese film fans with the Ozu Student comedies box and a set of Mizoguchi Blu-rays but I was well overdue a revisit to the Idiot .
I have watched it before but a couple of years ago when the Masters of Cinema set came out , which is the edition I watched again. I have to say I enjoyed it , certainly it has faults but in certain sections where it works I couldn’t help feeling it could have been a masterpiece.
I guess I find it hard to over analyse films while I’m watching and in this case it felt so unlike a Kurosawa movie and I was concentrating on the characters and plot so much ( I have never read the book ) that I didn’t make mental comparisons with his other films .
Because the depth of discussion on this board always amazes me I feel I want to watch the film again quickly and make notes so I have some more comments to make.
It’s so obvious that a lot is missing from the first half from the repeated cuts, wipes and the
inter-titles and voice overs and that is a frustrating section to watch and impossible to know if the missing footage would have improved the film or not.
As for the performances , I can only comment as a non Japanese speaker but most of the actors are in other easily available films so it’s possible to compare this with their other rolls.
I really did think Masayuki Mori was fine , after all how do you portray someone with an “invisible” illness equally I thought Yoshiko Kuga did well too though not quite up to her wonderful Ozu performances . Mifune was interesting and I tend to agree this is far from his best acting although perhaps he was just doing what Kurosawa directed , I do like the scenes where he is lounging in the decaying mansion though.
As for Setsuko Hara who entrances me in her roles for Ozu , something I find difficult to explain in terms of classic beauty, but under the directing style of Ozu for me she seems to totally transfer emotions with the simplest of glances or expressions. It seemed to me that Kurosaw was trying to get her to be exactly the opposite in the Idiot i.e. to seem to be unreadable by expression so she tried to keep her face still and he seemed to have her cloaked in black the whole time so as to reveal very little movement , I assume the point being to emphasise that only Kameda could see through these veils and find something more within. The over the top laughing was grating but I noticed her face was always hidden from view ? so we could hear her laugh but not see it ? Maybe she didn’t enjoy making the film or maybe Kurosawa’s directions and vision were strict and the resulting effect doesn’t translate so well to a western audience as the eternal virgin Hara. Of course she is still alive and has refused to do interviews for over 40 years and that’s not going to change now , her choice of course but she probably could have written an amazing book revealing plenty about the differing directing styles of Kurosawa , Ozu and Naruse .

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Amnesty11

Ugetsu:

I wonder if this is the reason for the scene where the two men sit with Akama’s senile mother at the alter? Perhaps the intention of this is that the equally simple minded woman saw what nobody else did – that he is a bodhisattva, hence she gave him the cake offering intended for the Buddha. Its interesting that in that scene we are not shown Kamedas face, only his back.

Hmm. I didn’t notice that his back was to us. Of course often if you have a blind person or a fool in a story, that character is the one who can see, who is enlightened, who understands things the way they really are. I was thinking that she was another representation of idiocy, dismissed as a fool – and yet absolutely full of love and willing to give all. The way Kameda sits on his knees and Akama sits cross legged, somehow that told me too how respectful Kameda was towards her, more like a child with a mother. And Akama sitting like a head honcho, his legs crossed — very much a man.

Kameda appears in this scene to be willing to receive. And maybe he’s willing to receive Akama’s mother’s gifts, not only of food, but of blessings too. She is another Bodhisatva?

Longstone, the symbolism for Setsuko Hara’s black velvet cape… I forgot to write about that one. I found it annoyingly “symbolic.” A little bit like a frying pan whacking me on the head every time she entered the scene. There were definitely things about this movie that were over the top for me too. (as Ugetsu said). Some very long scenes that could have been cut just a smidge to move the story along.

But overall, I really loved Masayuki Mori’s performance. Mr. Kurosawa really allowed him to go for it in this — I felt like Mori put his heart into it. There were many scenes where his hands would go up to his neck as he began to empathetically feel what the other person was feeling, and somehow that gesture moved me deeply. The facial expression when he..saw into the heart and soul of the person he was with. It haunts me. Mori really shone in this.

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Ugetsu

Longstone

It seemed to me that Kurosaw was trying to get her to be exactly the opposite in the Idiot i.e. to seem to be unreadable by expression so she tried to keep her face still and he seemed to have her cloaked in black the whole time so as to reveal very little movement , I assume the point being to emphasise that only Kameda could see through these veils and find something more within. The over the top laughing was grating but I noticed her face was always hidden from view ? so we could hear her laugh but not see it ? Maybe she didn’t enjoy making the film or maybe Kurosawa’s directions and vision were strict and the resulting effect doesn’t translate so well to a western audience as the eternal virgin Hara.

I’m very torn about her performance. When I first saw The Idiot, I thought she was the best thing about the film – I loved the contrast between her familiar Ozu characters and someone much more vampish and frankly, someone who would seem much more fun to be around. But on second viewing I can see her awkwardness – I agree that she doesn’t seem very comfortable in the role. I think (I can only guess) Kurosawa really wanted her to behave and move like a Russian character. I think someone said previously that in Japan the people of Hokkaido are considered ‘Russian’ in behaviour by other Japanese, I don’t know whether this was a deliberate play on this notion. As for Yoshiko Kuga, thought she was great, apart from the constant distracting thought I had that she would have made a great pixie in a Christmas movie.

Amnesty

Kameda appears in this scene to be willing to receive. And maybe he’s willing to receive Akama’s mother’s gifts, not only of food, but of blessings too. She is another Bodhisatva?

Thats a good point – I think the way this scene is filmed, with a much more ‘calm’ camera and set-up, indicates that it was intended to make a spiritual point of some sort. Perhaps there is an implication that Akama likes Kameda precisely because he reminds him of his mother? He wouldn’t be the first case of a man abused through his youth by his father who idealises his mother.

Longstone, the symbolism for Setsuko Hara’s black velvet cape… I forgot to write about that one. I found it annoyingly “symbolic.” A little bit like a frying pan whacking me on the head every time she entered the scene.

Is it really symbolic, or is it just the natural choice of winter clothes by a woman who sees herself as at war with the world? I did think Kurosawa was thinking all through the film of the final stand off between her and Ayako, and was intent on creating a very strong contrast between the two in dress and mannerisms.

As for Mori’s performance, I must admit I found it very irritating on my first viewing, but on second viewing I think he was very good. Playing someone very good is a very thankless task for an actor, I think he communicated the way Kameda felt intense pain through his empathy for others very well.

With Mifune, I suspect he was a victim of the editing. I just couldn’t grasp the contrasts between the Akama who tried to kill Kameda, and the Akama who seemed to love him. The character was just very one-dimensional. I have to say I thought the same about the equivalent character in the book.

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Vili Maunula

As always, it is very interesting to read about your impressions of the film. Like with you guys, it also took me a while to actually force myself to sit down and watch The Idiot again. It is not my favourite Kurosawa film by any means, and one of the few that I really don’t want to sit through more times than I need to.

I agree with all of you that Mori’s performance has its merits, and I think I liked him more this time than on my previous viewings. But had I been the director, I would have told him to stop that thing he does with his hands, clutching his chest whenever the character is confronted with emotions. It is very distracting, and I think that Mori already did a fine job simply acting with his eyes and his body movements. There is so much that those eyes can communicate, as can his mouth, and it is fascinating to follow the different ways in which he makes the character walk throughout the film. The clutching action is too much.

Also, while watching Mori I for some reason repeatedly came to think about C-3PO and Sheldon Cooper. Those three characters share many movement patterns.

It is an interesting question whether Kameda was intended a Buddhist figure here. Prince (pages 141-142) appears not to think so, but I definitely wouldn’t rule out the possibility. The idea of Akama’s senile mother recognising the saintliness in him also seems very plausible to me.

It is an even more interesting question whether his actions, which are intended good, actually result in good. Maybe there is a reason why we constantly lie and cheat, for it makes our world a better place. But if so, then it certainly must only be because the world that we have created is one where honesty and goodness actually hurts. And how messed up a world is that?

Watching Setsuko Hara, I again remember why I for so long really disliked her. Like Longstone points out, she simply is so much better, and also so much prettier, in Ozu’s films. And if you, like me, are first introduced to her acting through her appearances in the two Kurosawa films, you will simply be unable to understand why she ever was popular until you see her in a few Ozu appearances. I know we have asked this numerous times before, making this mostly a rhetorical question, but how on earth did Kurosawa seem to fail so totally with her?

I too noticed that whenever Hara laughed (is it twice in the film?), her face was not shown. I wonder if the intention was to make the laughter more haunting, more manic. It is a very strange laughter, on both occasions.

I liked her black dress. The symbolism to me reminded me of death — both someone who is dead or someone who causes death to others. As for clothing that I did not like, I want to run screaming to point at Mifune’s garments in the scene where Ayako has come to confront Taeko. While Akama’s clothing go through an interesting progression from the peasant-like clothes that he’s wearing at the beginning of the film to the more upper class garments towards the end, what he’s wearing in that particular scene makes me assume that he’s just checked out of a hotel in Las Vegas.

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Ugetsu

Watching Setsuko Hara, I again remember why I for so long really disliked her. Like Longstone points out, she simply is so much better, and also so much prettier, in Ozu’s films. And if you, like me, are first introduced to her acting through her appearances in the two Kurosawa films, you will simply be unable to understand why she ever was popular until you see her in a few Ozu appearances. I know we have asked this numerous times before, making this mostly a rhetorical question, but how on earth did Kurosawa seem to fail so totally with her?

Well, I quite like her in Kurosawas films! But she is certainly not at her best The Idiot or No Regrets for our Youth. Its interesting, as a ‘third’ view of her, to see her in Naruse’s films, especially one of my favourites, Sound of the Mountain. Her acting style in that film is somewhere between Ozu and Kurosawa, and she is very good indeed.

I remember a while back in a now largely defunct Yahoo forum on Ozu’s films, a Japanese contributor said that Hara’s reputation as an actress in Japan was as a ‘type’ or less charitably, a daikon, rather than a skilled actress. Ozu had a reputation apparently for rejecting classically trained actors, preferring those who had distinct characters which he could mould into his films (as with Chishu Ryu, who apparently was never all that distinguished outside Ozu’s films). A cynical look at her retirement therefore may be that she realised she could not do good work without a director who really understood her strengths and weaknesses, and since Ozu and Naruse were dead, it was better to get out on top of her game.

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Longstone

I do think Setsuko Hara was far better in Ozu’s films than in her two appearances for Kurosawa but I didn’t mind her in No Regrets for our Youth at all and I’m still undecided on the Idiot.
I also agree with Ugetsu that her work for Naruse in the films I’ve seen ( Sound of the Mountain and Repast ) was wonderful. Equally I really like her later performances for Ozu where she is playing a mother rather than Noriko the daughter . I don’t think I’ve managed to see any films she did for other directors ? Certainly she wasn’t “discovered” by Ozu as Chishu Ryu was.
I’ve seen the Daikon phrase used for Ryu ,(maybe even by himself in interview ? ) but I don’t recall Hara being described in that way .
As I don’t speak Japanese , I guess I am judging their performances on whether or not I enjoy them and I wonder if I’m qualified to say if they are actually good or bad actors?
It took a couple of Ozu films for me to get used to the style of Ryu for example but now I can’t get enough of him and he seems to crop up in a lot of films that are still available to see .
I wish there was more biographical material available in English on all these people that worked in Japanese cinema , Ozu kept extensive diaries as did Ryu but I don’t think they have ever been translated to English.
Ugetsu, that’s an interesting view on Hara’s retirement . As I understand it she claimed to have never enjoyed acting and that it was purely a way to earn money for her family, which upset the press who felt they had been somehow betrayed by the eternal virgin. Since then not one interview or public appearance . I suspect this will have resulted in some criticism and possible unfairness from the Japanese tabloids at the time . Anyway she must have had something if we are interested enough to discuss her performances after all this time.

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Ugetsu

Longstone

As I don’t speak Japanese , I guess I am judging their performances on whether or not I enjoy them and I wonder if I’m qualified to say if they are actually good or bad actors?

I agree that you miss something not knowing the language (I don’t speak Japanese either), but I think you can judge most of an acting performance without knowing the language, especially with someone like Hara. But its true that sometimes a lot is lost when you don’t know the language – I recall a criticism of one star of the period who was good at ‘earthy’ roles, but whose voice was thought of by many Japanese as too harsh to play the society ladies the studios sometimes cast her in for commercial reasons. Her tone of voice certainly didn’t register with me. I’m sure there are all sorts of subtleties about a performance you miss if you have anything less than perfect Japanese.

As I understand it she claimed to have never enjoyed acting and that it was purely a way to earn money for her family, which upset the press who felt they had been somehow betrayed by the eternal virgin.

I think Richie described her stated reasons as sounding like ‘the bitter truth’, which it may well be, but it always struck me as a little graceless and selfish of her to exit that way. Its not exactly like anyone would have forced her to be an actress and major star.

I agree with you very much though that its a great shame there isn’t much biographical material out there on the actors of the period. I must admit to being a little fascinated by some of their careers as marked out on imdb. Some seem to have had major parts when young and then just disappeared, others seem to have had careers of remarkable longevity. I think a biographical history of the period would be a great book, I’d certainly buy it.

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Amnesty11

Whoa! Longstone, I had to look up who Chishu Ryu was and somehow landed smack dab in the middle of an Ozu forum discussion on Ryu and Ozu’s homosexual relationship, which then lead to a discussion of Scorsese and DiCaprio. What a way to spend a morning!

I too would love to see a book on the biographical history of the Japanese Cinema stars of the time period. I’m constantly looking up Kurosawa-gumi and finding almost nothing of their “real” lives… I am probably the newest of all of you in discovering Japanese Film and so have a LOT of catching up to do. (So please forgive my ignorance, onegaishimasu!)

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Vili Maunula

I too would definitely buy that book (or series of books) on Japanese actors. Maybe one could be commissioned from Stuart Galbraith, as he has already written the histories of Kurosawa and Mifune, as well as that of Toho.

But it is unfortunate that such works as Takashi Shimura’s memoirs or Kazuko Kurosawa’s books about her father have not been translated into English. Not to mention Japanese film criticism, like Tadao Satao and so on.

I know that there is a very active group of people fan-translating manga and anime. I wonder what it would take to harvest that potential into translating these autobiographies, biographies and academic studies? More panties and tentacles?

Ugetsu: Some seem to have had major parts when young and then just disappeared, others seem to have had careers of remarkable longevity.

The three-year-long career of Misa Uehara (who you linked to) is interesting. If I recall correctly, she was selected by Kurosawa for the role of the Princess in The Hidden Fortress after a lengthy casting process had gone through hundreds of young women, including the entire Japanese pool of talent in Toho and other studios, only to return without anyone that Kurosawa liked. Kurosawa then widened the search further by asking Toho’s theatre chain to keep an eye on young women. Uehara was basically spotted by some theatre employee while she was watching a film, they contacted Toho, Toho contacted Uehara, she came to try out for the part, and Kurosawa was mesmerised by her (or her eyes). And the part was hers.

If you look at her career following The Hidden Fortress, she seems to have been working within a fairly small and consistent group of core people, suggesting that someone may have been protecting her and trying to bring her up within the system. I wonder if after three years everyone involved decided that it would not be working. I haven’t seen her work in any other films, but her performance in The Hidden Fortress is not among my favourites of all time.

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Longstone

I know this is slipping off topic but ,
Here is a good obituary for Chishu Ryu giving a lot more biographical information than you can usually find,
Ryu obituary at the Independent

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cocoskyavitch

Heyall! Just back from Spain and Marrakech via Denver(!) and happy to see the chat on one of my very favorite, really most beloved films…Kurosawa’s version of “The Idiot“.
Filmically, there are shots of such stunning power and beauty that they haunt me! The line of poplars as Mori’s character discusses his inheritance…the ice and snow-filled decrepit manse of Mifune’s character, the visit to the mum at the altar and the handing of the offerings over to Mori’s character. There is such a wonderful revisioning of the story! In the book, much happens in heat, in summer…! But, using Hokkaido’s northern, western (ish) world and imagining the decisive acts happening in snow (the night-time fearful run through snow with Mifune following Mori!!!! The ice carnival!!!) I believe Kurosawa has remade the book into something poetic, haunting and beautiful!
I’m with you, Ugetsu– I LIKE Kuroswa’s Hara. I like the way different directors are able to bring different things from their actresses! Think of how Mori is used in Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu…!
Or, just think of Mifune’s work for Inagaki! So different!!!!!
Hey, Amnesty… here’s a fun primer on Kurosawa’s players. Now, you can have fun seeing how differently each is used in Kurosawa’s films. Heck, I used to have a hard time seeing that they WERE the same folks re-used time and again!:

http://thestuffyougottawatch.com/kuroplay.html

and
http://www.kurosawamovies.com/actors.htm

  link

lawless

I just watched the film for the first time and feel the need to rewatch it to revisit some things, but here are my preliminary throughts. Keep in mind that I haven’t read any of the other entries on the film yet.

My overall feeling? The real problem with the film is its source. Dostoevsky’s story doesn’t work as a film. Notice I didn’t say his novel. It’s not a problem of adaptation; it’s a problem of the story being so melodramatic and absurd that it works on the page but not in the flesh. Secondarily, the characters and their psychology are so Russian — or at least I’ve only ever encountered such characters in Russian novels, primarily Dostoevsky’s, and Dostoevsky himself clearly considered them quintessentally Russian — that I was always aware that I was watching Japanese actors portray Russian characters.

The first 20-30 minutes were difficult to watch because to the extent they conveyed much of anything, it was all tell, no show. But I think that could have been solved without adding many more minutes to the film. And knowing the story in general (I’ve read about half of the book and the ending — yes, I’m the type of person who skips ahead), I think a coherent movie could have been made in a shorter running time than Kurosawa’s original cut. The pacing of the film was off, but I’m not sure how much the cuts contributed to it, as it feels like scenes were cut out rather than being shaved. As it is, some existing scenes go on too long and there are shots that linger longer than they need to while other scenes and shots are too short or are choppy.

Maybe it’s all the snow, but I missed the crispness of Kurosawa’s usual cinematic style in most of the exterior shots, and as some of you have mentioned, the blocking is sometimes clunky. Yet as Coco says, there are also scenes of great beauty. Like her, I was especially impressed with how the last scene with Mori and Mifune was filmed, although I missed the fact that it was a death scene — and I went back and watched the end of the scene!

Other than the gesture of his hands clutching his neck becoming tiresome over time, I thought Mori was wonderful. He was competent but didn’t wow me in Ugetsu (though this may be a function of me finding his character annoying and one-note in the beginning of the film) and I found his acting in Rashomon bland and blank — the very things the critics find wrong with his performance here.

I also like Hara’s performance (though I agree that she’s not the great beauty in this movie that her character is supposed to be). She’s playing an over the top character. I actually had more trouble with Ayako, but that’s mostly because her emotions change so quickly, making her character seem not much more stable than Naeko’s. I suspect, however, that this comes from the source and eliminating it would have flattened both the character and the story. I also thought the actress playing Ayako’s mother was terrific and that the role was well-conceived.

I was disappointed with Mifune and with how his role was written. If anything suffered from the film being cut, it was probably that. However, the character I remember from the book, while violent, was suaver and less thuggish than he was written and portrayed here.

Kameda is a purely passive character. That comes back to bite him in the butt during the confrontation between Ayako and Naeko, in which both of them use the truth as daggers against each other. I don’t just think that this demonstrates that good sometimes doesn’t produce good, but that a passive kind of goodness is in some circumstances wrong in and of itself. It wasn’t until Dostoevsky wrote The Brothers Karamazov that he depicted the power of active goodness in the form of Alyosha and the Elder Zosima. To me, through his inaction, Kameda is morally responsible for what ensues.

Overall, it’s a moving but flawed film.

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