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The Idiot: Could it have been salvaged?

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    Ugetsu

    I just finished watching The Idiot for the first time last night (I found it quite hard to track down a copy). I will need to watch it again and think about before coming to any conclusions but… my first thoughts are – what a mess! Some wonderful individual scenes, and some great performances, but the whole film failed to gel for me. I know of course that the hatchet job done by the studio did enormous damage, but I don’t think everything can be blamed on that – for me, too many scenes used melodrama where there should have been more subtle character development and even within individual scenes (which I assume were not re-edited), I found it a little incoherent. Reading Richie (I’ve never read the source book), it does seem that the characterization went very wayward compared to the book.

    There does seem to be a consensus with the major critics that AK made a fundamental error in staying far too close to the source material, failing to really turn it into ‘cinema’, although for me there was maybe a little too much cinema in it – too many visually gripping individual scenes, and too little character development and narrative flow.

    The key question I think is whether this lack of flow and general incoherence (assuming you folks agree on this point) is all due to the re-edit, or whether the whole concept was fundamentally flawed, as Richie suggests?

    So, do you think The Idiot is a lost masterpiece, or can it just be chalked up to a one-off piece of bad judgment by AK?

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    cocoskyavitch

    Hey Ugetsu, thanks for bringing up the topic of revision.

    In terms of answering the post question: I find the Idiot to be an utterly compelling, fascinating, masterful and disturbing…and mangled. It’s the Mickey Rourke of the film world, it’s the Orson Wells-turning-over-in-his-grave cut slash and destroy job. Beaten, bleeding, scarred…the Frida Kahlo of self-portraiture, the van Gogh…!

    So, for me, it isn’t whether or not it could be salvaged (as we know, famously, the bits are lost, and Kurosawawa was so angry he threatened to have it cut up the middle lengthwise)-it’s that there is still so much power and craziness that I LOVE THIS FILM! I think it a scarred masterpiece, not a LOST masterpiece.

    …for me there was maybe a little too much cinema in it – too many visually gripping individual scenes

    Yep. The horse coming at the camera in the first Hokkaido shots and the ice festival-certain shots stand out as different from the rest of Kurosawa’s ouvre, in that they draw attention to themselves without advancing the story much. That horse is particularly egregious.

    But, there are so many beautiful scenes-and I really love the actors, and am so happy to see Setsuko Hara imperious and on the edge of madness-she’s very different here than anywhere else-and I dig it…I love Masayuki Mori. And, of course, I have my own reasons for loving this film-personal reasons. I was in the Peter and Paul fortress some years ago, for the first time learning the story of Dostoyevsky’s imprisonment. I was in his cell, and heard of the mock execution he suffered through…so the Idiot is partly autobiographical, (but, you knew that) and, to me, a compelling look at psychology…that rings true. The melodrama, which-are you freaking kidding me-is part of films of that time, is over-the-top with men crying and hystrionics just this side of ridiculous-and yet, for me, managing to stay just this side.

    To me, Hokkaido is a brilliant choice for the setting. Frozen souls in a frozen landscape. When Richie complains about the film, perhaps he though Hokkaido too like Russia. Different styles of housing and clothing from the rest of Japan-more West-seeming. Perhaps this offended him.

    Because why else would he make the stupidest statement in film criticism? That the film was just the story filmed? I mean, as if that’s possible. It’s never “just”. It’s a good film, ok. It’s a bad film, ok.

    But, Richie is plain lazy if he can’t look at the adaptation more carefully than that statement suggests. To conclue, The Idiot is a spooky masterpiece-one of my favorite films of all time-and, yes, it is a bruised and battered piece of work.

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    Ugetsu

    In terms of answering the post question: I find the Idiot to be an utterly compelling, fascinating, masterful and disturbing…and mangled. It’s the Mickey Rourke of the film world, it’s the Orson Wells-turning-over-in-his-grave cut slash and destroy job. Beaten, bleeding, scarred…the Frida Kahlo of self-portraiture, the van Gogh…!

    I laughed out loud at that, brilliantly put!

    Yes, I agree that its a lazy criticism to say that it is ‘just’ the story filmed. The only pure example of this I know of is Jun Ichikawa’s ‘Tony Takatani’, where he quite literally films a Murakami short story – a narrator reads the story, the film shows us the characters, even their words are spoken by the narrator (I found it both annoying and compelling, I still haven’t decided whether I liked it or not). I’ve mentioned it several times before, but John Heustons ‘The Dead’ is one of my all time favourites, and that is a highly literal adaption of Joyces story.

    I think maybe I’m at a loss with this film in that I haven’t read any of Dostoyevsky (the sign of a misspent childhood, I know). I think this may be the odd example of a film where you really need to have read the book to truly enjoy the film. I did hugely enjoy the Hokkaido setting, I think it was wonderfully atmospheric, and Hara’s coat was awesome, even if it did make me wonder if she was going to wander out some night and take a bite out of Ayoko’s neck. 🙄

    Oh well, I guess I’ll have to watch it again, maybe I’ll enjoy it more second time round.

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    Ugetsu

    Oh, and I just remembered, a related question someone may know:

    In the Masters of Cinema dvd I saw, Alex Cox provides the introduction. He implies that the studio cut focused mainly on minor characters and sub-plots in the first section. He implies that a lot of ‘linking’ scenes were cut, leading to unexplained jumps in action.

    This makes some sense, but there also seemed to be a few unexpected jump cuts in individual scenes. Am I right in suspecting that some scenes were ‘trimmed’ to cut down the time, or were the cuts mainly of longer sections?

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ugestu, this is from an amateur’s-eye-view (amateur as in “loving it”) and nowhere near authoritative as the chemical analysis-so forwarned, I would concur that the first section suffers most from cutting but that other areas also suffered. Others can do the research, and are probably better suited to sleuthery than I.

    On my earlier post, and your response..hey, if I can make you chuckle, that’s awesome!

    Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto wrote an essay (on the Masters of Cinema page: http://eurekavideo.co.uk/moc/catalogue/the-idiot/essay/ ) actually in agreement with my earlier post “…”Just a direct transposition from word to film”…how the heck is that even possible?”

    Yoshimoto goes on to say:

    …”One thing that clearly stands out in The Idiot is the extensive use of close-ups showing the actors’ faces. Although Kurosawa is blamed for relying heavily on the close-up, I agree with Sado Tadao that the faces of the principal actors, those of Mori Masayuki and particularly Hara Setsuko, are extremely beautiful and even sublime. “

    And, that seems so true to me! I am in awe of some of the images…the best ones give us the equivalent of tonal distinctions in character development in literature-without words, Kurosawa does, at points achieve his “cinematic beauty”.

    Yoshimoto’s conclusion is so good, I have to quote:

    “What Hara brings to the role of Nasu Taeko in The Idiot is this sense of spiritual nobility, which I believe is captured in the close-up images of her face, even though – or sometimes precisely because – her facial expression is strained and exaggerated. Hara Setsuko as an actress will probably not be remembered for her role in The Idiot. But the film The Idiot will remain unforgettable for, among other things, the performance and close-up face of Hara.”

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    Ugetsu

    coco, thanks for that link, thats a terrific essay by Yoshimoto.

    I assume Yoshimoto is correct when he says that much of the re-edit was done by AK himself? Alex Cox implies (and I thought Richie did too, although I don’t have his book to hand) that the edit was completely out of his hands. Cox actually says that the editor deliberately copied AK’s technique, even inserting wipes, although very crudely and inappropriately.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ugetsu, from what I have read, Kurosawa returned to Shochiku to do Rhapsody in August toward the end of his career, and looked for the cut bits of Hakuchi but they were nowhere to be found. So, from what I gather, reassembly is impossible. Wouldn’t it be great if, like Dyer’s film Joan of Arc the entire director’s cut were found intact in a broom closet? Barring miracles of that sort, it is likely that what we got is what we got…but what is it that we have, anywhoo? We have 100 minutes less than Kurosawa’s original release.

    On the Criterion Collection credits list for the film, it says

    “Editing……..T. Saito”

    and is also listed at “Allmovie.com” as editor of Hakuchi. So, is this T. Saito the man Shochiku hired to cut the film? Seems like it, but I am no expert.

    Somewhere, Ugetsu, you mentioned the Christian symbolism of the main character. That could be a fine thread for discussion, actually. In my opinion, it’s no deal breaker, it becomes transposed into Japanese ideas…in Japanese culture, Kwan Yin (or Kannon) is the specific cultural incarnation of Avalokitesvera-the Boddhisatva of compassion-so kind as to stay behind on this mortal plane, until all souls can be saved. So, it works very well for me as a culture-specific sacrifice-and to my mind, just as compelling a sacrifice as crucifixion.

    On another topic, here is a blog site with some very beautiful screen captures that might be of interest to you: http://avaxhome.ws/video/genre/classics/idiot_by_kurosawa.html

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    Vili Maunula

    I have yet to re-watch The Idiot, so I’ll try to stay away from the main discussion until I get to see the film again — which, with work and house renovations and guests coming and my computer falling to pieces, probably won’t be until towards the end of the month.

    In any case, this is what I wished to comment on:

    Ugetsu: I assume Yoshimoto is correct when he says that much of the re-edit was done by AK himself? Alex Cox implies (and I thought Richie did too, although I don’t have his book to hand) that the edit was completely out of his hands. Cox actually says that the editor deliberately copied AK’s technique, even inserting wipes, although very crudely and inappropriately.

    According to Gailbraith (page 145), there were three cuts:

    1) Kurosawa’s original cut running 265 minutes, intended to be shown in two parts. Apparently never publicly screened.

    2) Kurosawa’s 180 minute cut, mandated by the studio, and shown only once at the film’s premiere.

    3) The studio’s 166 minute cut, done without Kurosawa’s participation. This is what went to wide release and also what we have.

    According to Galbraith, most of what was cut was taken from the “film’s first few reels”, with the action there now “explained through the incessant use of intertitles”.

    Unfortunately, Galbraith is not clear whether the intertitles are Kurosawa’s or the studio’s. Neither does he really say whether the studio’s cut was a completely new one, based on the 265 minute version, or whether it was just a trimmed down version of the 180 minute cut. Galbraith, moreover, does not really state his sources there.

    For some reason, I have always assumed that the 166 minute cut was just hastily trimmed down version of the 180 minute cut. There was, after all, not much time between the film’s premiere and its wide release, so a full edit sounds implausible (although not impossible). This view is perhaps also supported by the fact that Kurosawa still very much claimed The Idiot his own. Had the studio carried out a full re-edit, I think Kurosawa would have been one to note this. Instead, I don’t remember him ever really blaming Shochiku for the overwhelmingly negative reviews that the film received.

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    Vili Maunula

    I finally found the time and the frame of mind to sit down to watch The Idiot. It must have been five or six years since I last saw it, but there didn’t seem to be much new to it, even if I have now only seen the film three or four times altogether.

    That could actually be the starting point in my answer to the question Ugetsu posed at the beginning of this thread — is the film a lost gem that failed primarily due to studio influence, or was it a concept that was doomed to fail spectacularly from the very beginning?

    With the film now fresh in my mind, I don’t actually think that it is very much either. It’s not spectacularly good (even potentially so), but neither is it spectacularly bad. It’s not even spectacularly average, if that means something. Usually, repeated viewings of Kurosawa’s films add to my understanding of them, but as I said there was quite little in The Idiot that surprised me or introduced new ideas. I didn’t hate it either, though. It’s a passable film, not a particularly good one, and had it not been made by Kurosawa, I think we would not see it as a disaster, just a less than interesting movie.

    As for the cuts, I think that it is the first part of the film that most suffers from the edits. The second part appears to be more cohesive and easy to follow. Unfortunately, so much seems to be missing from the beginning of the film that we lose just about all character introductions and development. Consequently, although the second half is easier to follow, it is still difficult to actually care about the characters, since the film hasn’t quite earned our interest in them.

    Especially Taeko remains an enigma, and not in a good way. Not like in the novel. It is she who should bind the story together, but we see her so little, understand her so poorly and care about her so little that she doesn’t, really. Personally, I also think that Setsuko Hara’s performance falls apart towards the end of the film.

    The centre cannot hold, so to speak, and um…. “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”? Or the screen. Actually, coming to think of it, the first part of Yeats’s “The Second Coming” would work pretty perfectly in summing up my views of The Idiot. But I digress.

    So, the cutting certainly hurts the film. But I think that there is another fundamental problem. This just isn’t the kind of thing Kurosawa does well, or in fact does at all. Apart perhaps from Madadayo, I cannot quite think of another Kurosawa film that was so strongly about its characters, and so little about some sort of an external conflict, a dilemma, or an idea to put forward. Like critics have pointed out over and over again, including Richie with his comment about The Idiot being a book filmed, Doestoevsky’s novel takes place primarily within the internal world of the characters (even if it is presented through almost nothing but endless superficial dialogue), and the film is unable to show that on the big screen. I have this feeling that someone like Ozu could well have made a far better adaptation of The Idiot. Kurosawa’s characters, however, usually express themselves through action, yet The Idiot has very little action through which to accomplish this.

    That’s because Doestoevsky is boring. Well, according to Kurosawa, anyway: “People complained about being bored… but then Dostoevsky’s world is boring.” (Richie, 85; emphasis original) Kurosawa is not very good at making “boring” movies. Even in the films he himself considered compositionally “still” as opposed to “dynamic” (and The Idiot is one of the still ones; see for instance Cardullo, 29), the story is usually moved forward quite dynamically. I don’t really see that happening in The Idiot, however.

    Perhaps the film was Kurosawa’s experiment in doing an “Ozu type” film. Maybe that’s even why he cast Hara.

    It may well be that Kurosawa was also far too familiar with the source material. According to co-writer Eijiro Hisata, Kurosawa had already read Dostoevsky’s novel seven times by the time they started working on the adaptation. (Galbraith, 144) Maybe Kurosawa failed to keep in mind that unlike him, most of his audience wouldn’t know the story and the characters by heart, and therefore couldn’t add to what was missing from the film.

    I am suggesting this especially because of the puzzling choice to cut so much out of the film’s early character development — for Kurosawa, those characters probably needed no development since he knew them so well, and perhaps that is why he misjudged the amount that would actually have been needed for also the rest of us to bond with them. It could also be why the film really is, in the end, pretty much “the book filmed”. Maybe Kurosawa thought that he was showing us something when he really wasn’t — his familiarity with the book was tricking him.

    Edit: I forgot to mention that I also think that the music is very poorly put together in the first part of the film. In the second part, it works better. But what’s up with that orchestrated wall-to-wall sound scape in the first part?

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    Ryan

    Edit by Vili: I have moved Ryan’s reply here, as it kind of starts a new topic.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Wow. If I had a gun and could shoot the following, I would!:

    It could also be why the film really is, in the end, pretty much “the book filmed”.

    Adaptation-the Pottery Figurine and the Live Model:

    One of the stunningly wrong-headed complaints in the history of complaints about art surrounds the fine figure known as the “Age of Bronze” by Rodin.

    The sculpture depicts a man, nude, full-sized, standing on the ground, holding a spear. It was said by Rodin’s contemporaries to be “nothing more that a cast of an actual man and not a work of art at all!” It was criticized for its lack of imagination, and lack of “art”.

    Today, with clear eyes, we see a masterful, and actually rather expressive, albeit naturalistic sculpture of a nude man. Luckily, Rodin took photographs of the human model he used for the work. We can compare photos and see the differences in form and shape between sculpture of the man and the photo of the man himself. Considering all the many generations influenced by Rodin’s example since his time, this bronze seems hardly at all controversial, and certainly not lacking.

    So, I must object most forcefully to the concept that one can just “film a book”. This is the laziest possible criticism, and doesn’t acknowledge material reality. To whit:

    (Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities):

    Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone. “But which is the stone that supports the bridge?” Kublai Khan asks.

    “The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,” Marco answers, “but by the line of the arch that they form.”

    Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: “Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is the arch that matters to me.” Polo answers: “Without stones there is no arch.”

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    cocoskyavitch

    I’m a painter. You know? For me, stuff matters, physical stuff has meaning connected to the immaterial. As a matter of fact, I do lectures on culture and discuss the invisible hidden iceberg of values, faith, human relationships, societal roles and responsibilities, customs, spatial concepts and gender politics that is the stuff we know underlies the visible manifestations of the culture-the sand mandalas, the two men holding hands, the scarification of the cheeks of the warrior, the woven kilim’s design.

    For me you never dismiss the physical, and it is never “merely” physical.

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    Vili Maunula

    Perhaps you take the comment far too literally, Coco. You are right, a film is not a book (hence also my quotation marks). But the way I see it, some films are more “book-like” than other films. The way they carry the story is similar to written works, which often have a rhythm very different from cinema. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Being “a book filmed” is not necessarily a bad thing.

    Red Beard, which I consider quite “book-like” with its cyclical or spherical narrative structure (I think we talked about this last autumn), does it extremely well. In The Idiot‘s case, the film seems to mimic Dostoevsky’s style (which in itself reminds me of a chamber play), and I feel that it loses something in the process. As I noted previously, I don’t see the same visual or narrative richness in The Idiot that I see in most other Kurosawa films. I can’t of course speak for Richie, but I suppose that that’s what he’s trying to say as well.

    Also, what I more specifically tried to suggest with my “book filmed” comment is that perhaps Kurosawa was so familiar with the book by this point that his familiarity (and reverence) somewhat clouded his directorial judgement. Hence, what he ended up producing was a filmed version of the book, rather than his own adaptation.

    Of course, this assumes that the film is, if not terrible, at least not entirely what it could have been. Somewhat lacking in originality. I know that both you and Ryan think highly of the movie, though, so obviously it is not a universal view. But then again, so few things are. And that’s why we have these discussion groups. 🙂

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    cocoskyavitch

    Oh, you have every right to your opinion, Vili. No one contests that. I am only arguing for clarity.

    Hence, what he ended up producing was a filmed version of the book,

    I just think that a “filmed version of the book” is a particularly meaningless phrase, since a film adaptation of literature is, by definition, a “filmed version of the book”.

    I completely understand what you are trying to say, I just object to the inclusion of this intellectually lazy and misleading way of saying it. (I am not insulting you, it is Richie’s fault-he started it). If you are saying, as was said about Rodin’s sculpture, “it shows no art-and is too faithful to the original-sacrificing art for the sake of verisimilitude”-then, say that! Say it hasn’t found it’s form as film, then tell me where and how it fails, by golly!!!!! And, then we can have a real discussion of the merits and failings of the film.

    The phrase a “filmed version of the book” tells me nothing, helps further the discussion not one whit. I could shoot Donald Richie…he’s poisoned the discussion with that nonsense!

    (Actually, I have a lot of affection for Richie. He’s just such an irresponsible, loudmouth sometimes, though. Still, I would have him over for cocktails. I betcha we would have a cat fight, though, but later I would show him all my shoes, and he would dig that, and we would make up.)

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    Vili Maunula

    Ok, point taken. Although I personally still think that some adaptations are more like “the book torn into pieces, randomly recompiled, set on fire and then fed to a cow from Sirius Beta” than what I would call a “filmed version of the book”.

    If you are saying, as was said about Rodin’s sculpture, “it shows no art-and is too faithful to the original-sacrificing art for the sake of verisimilitude”-then, say that! Say it hasn’t found it’s form as film, then tell me where and how it fails, by golly!!!!! And, then we can have a real discussion of the merits and failings of the film.

    To be honest, I thought that I said something like that in the paragraph which included the insulting phrase. But apparently not, then. I’ll try to think more in the future before posting.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Thanks for taking the point, and understanding that I have tons of respect for you, just take umbrage at a phrase first uttered by Richie that sets up a rube’s dialectic. Devil in the details, man…it’s a particular bugaboo of mine that I insist on physicality being as important as ideas-(in art-I leave it to the crowd to decide anything beyond). There is no bridge without the stones. Thanks for understanding.

    You said,

    That’s because Doestoevsky is boring. Well, according to Kurosawa, anyway: “People complained about being bored… but then Dostoevsky’s world is boring.” (Richie, 85; emphasis original)

    I love it! And, I agree. And, on the other hand, do not believe that “Dostoevsky’s world is boring” means “Dostoevsky’s writing is boring”. There actually is something so persuasively real about the muffled, cold, tortured world of Hakuchi-heck, maybe it’s my Michigan roots, but it seems very real to me.

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