This 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:
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.