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The Idiot: The abuser and the abused

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    Ugetsu

    One of the striking things I find about my own reaction to watching The Idiot is that the purported central theme – outlined quite clearly in the films introductory titling – that it is about how a pure, good man can be destroyed by the world, seems not to be consistent with the actual plot of the film. We are told repeatedly that Kameda is ‘good’, and it is implied that he is saintly, but he never actually does very much to prove this. He is of course very nice and mild-mannered, but when, for example, he receives his huge windfall of a large farm, he simply uses this to pursue his own interests. Surely the act of a ‘good’ man would be to use it for charitable purposes? In reality, he seems quite selfish, pursuing his own private obsessions (this reflects the source novel). It seems more appropriate to say that he possesses a hyper empathy and sensitivity to others, an ability to see and experience other peoples pain. I’m not sure this can really be equated (except perhaps in some interpretations of Christianity), to general ethical definitions of ‘goodness’. Apart from generally trying to help Nasu, he doesn’t actually do anything particularly useful, which must surely be one of the universal characteristics of what constitutes ‘goodness’.

    Now we turn to two of the other of the four main characters, Nasu and Akama. Both of these are deeply wounded people, and both are explicitly seen as carrying out selfish and destructive acts (to themselves and others), and we are unambiguously told that this is the product of abuse – Nasu has been subject to sexual abuse since she was 14 and we are told that Akama was viciously beaten by his father. In the context of the film, this is seen (certainly by Kameda) as an ‘excuse’ for their sometimes appalling behaviour. In this, I can’t help contrasting this to Kurosawa’s later Red Beard, where Kurosawa, through his main character Niide, tells us (when talking about the insane ‘Mantis’ woman), that while abuse may cause someone to act in an evil way, it is never an excuse for evil acts, as this is an insult to those who have suffered abuse but did not in turn become abusive. This seems a very different philosophy than that espoused in The Idiot which consistently looks on Akama and Nasu as sympathetic characters, despite their often selfish and violent behaviour.

    The central triangle of The Idiot therefore seems to be about two abused people damaging each other horribly, while also causing the downfall of a man unfortunate enough to become entangled in their world. Kameda is also, of course, the victim of abuse as an adult (in neither book nor film do we get much of an indication of what he was like prior to his war experiences) without becoming an abuser. But rather than being a sign of strength of character, this seems to be a simple symptom of his illness.

    The fourth main character, Ayako, seems to be the most conventional of the four. She is wilful but, seemingly, a conventionally good person (and as such follows very much the character of Aglaya in the book). But while in the book she becomes something of a tragic figure, in the film she seems to me to fade away in importance towards the end.

    So I’m left somewhat perplexed as to what the core theme of the film was intended to be. Am I misinterpreting Kameda’s spiritual ‘goodness’? For me, what the film leaves us with is a fairly banal warning of getting too involved in the psyches of damaged people. This could be seen as consistent with Red Beard, but seems somewhat simplistic compared to, for example, Stray Dog and High and Lows more complex dissections of what might drive someone to do evil things (while Nasu doesn’t do anything overtly evil, she certainly seems capable of it). The film also seems to hint at the potential of spirituality as a counterpoint to the harshness of the real world (I am assuming this comes mainly from the source novel as it was major theme of Dostoyevsky), but if so, it seems to conclude that it is consolation only to the simpleminded.

    So I am left something at a loss as to what it was that attracted Kurosawa to the material, and what he was trying to say? The ending is somewhat different from the book, with Kameda dying rather than going completely insane as the books’s Prince Myshkin did. But this seems more for the sake of a dramatic final scene rather than any thematic change. While in overall terms it hints at themes seen in many of his films, for me it never grapples with them in a satisfying way, and is much more simplistic than even his straightforward action films. Am I missing something about this? I’m aware of course of a massive amount of critical work on Dostyevsky although I have read precisely none of it (the book, to be honest, left me cold, although I did enjoy some of the set pieces such as the birthday party – the fact that Kurosawa was so faithful in replicating these indicates to me he loved them too). Am I missing something about the book/film? Or is it maybe more of a case that Kurosawa simply loved the characters and wished to tell it as a straight dramatic story, without necessarily seeing something deeper or more spiritual in it?

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    Longstone

    I haven’t read the book so my only version of of the story and characters is the Kurosawa film and I really need to watch it again after reading your thoughts Ugetsu .

    One thing that played on my mind was the nature of Kameda’s illness , firstly, if I remember correctly , according to the voice over he returns from treatment for a breakdown resulting from an incident where he is wrongly accused of being a war criminal ? or perhaps they meant a prisoner of war ?

    So I thought it was a trauma related breakdown or shell shock type of illness.

    However according to the Wikipedia entry on the book he is supposed to have been treated for epilepsy . Then throughout the film he is referred to as good and it seems he is unable to tell lies or perhaps more accurately he tells the truth at inopportune moments. Is this a description of some form of autism that wouldn’t have been known about when the book was written .

    Then there is the title and idea that Kameda was suffering from idiocy ( whatever that is ? ) which in English would normally mean lacking in intelligence or in the past a cruel way of describing learning difficulties. However I’m not sure what the Russian interpretation/translation of the word would be , Richie mentions Kurosawa using the Japanese words for idiot as a script device or rather the affectionate word for fool “baka” which according to Richie friends often use amongst themselves. It seems Kameda has suffered a breakdown of sorts and perhaps has another underlying mental issue but it’s at a level that allows two women to fall in love with him despite it being public knowledge . In addition to all this there is the saintly ability to see good in the most tortured of people.

    I watched the ending twice as I couldn’t decide if Kameda died at the end , and Richie suggests that they in fact simple go insane together which is where Kurosawa differs from the book ?

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    Ugetsu

    Longstone

    One thing that played on my mind was the nature of Kameda’s illness , firstly, if I remember correctly , according to the voice over he returns from treatment for a breakdown resulting from an incident where he is wrongly accused of being a war criminal ? or perhaps they meant a prisoner of war ?

    Its a while since I read the book and, to be honest I didn’t enjoy it and found myself skipping sections so my comparisons may not be accurate (I later found that i was reading an old, not very good translation, which made it quite difficult to follow). I think the book is quite vague about his illness, while I took from the book that it was what would once have been described as a nervous breakdown. On the early train scene he actually gives a medical term for it, but I didn’t catch it. As to his description as a war criminal, I assume this is simply something that was contemporary at the time, I assume it had resonance for the contemporary audience, I’m not sure if too much should be read into it. If it was an intentional reference I think it could have been read two ways – as a criticism of the mass executions of soldiers who may not have been guilty of war crimes – or as a recognition that the Occupation did have a working justice system, where an innocent man would (eventually) get some justice.

    Then throughout the film he is referred to as good and it seems he is unable to tell lies or perhaps more accurately he tells the truth at inopportune moments. Is this a description of some form of autism that wouldn’t have been known about when the book was written .

    This is a very good point, there is something slightly autistic about his behaviour, I imagine that his ‘illness’ is really an imaginary amalgam of many different types of mental illness.

    Then there is the title and idea that Kameda was suffering from idiocy ( whatever that is ? ) which in English would normally mean lacking in intelligence or in the past a cruel way of describing learning difficulties. However I’m not sure what the Russian interpretation/translation of the word would be

    I’d also wondered about that. I suspect the word ‘Idiot’ is not a good translation, as its strongly implied in the book and film that he wasn’t an idiot in the usual English sense of the word, just not socially adapted. From my extremely limited knowledge of Japanese, I suspect Baka, which seems to be an all purpose friendly or not so friendly insult, is maybe a good fit. Perhaps there is no real English word for it – idiot savant, or simpleton being the closest perhaps. In Irish there is a word ‘bodach‘, which in some uses means someone who is dim, and maybe a bit scary, but is essentially harmless and even lovable (there are several other meanings,including a lout). It may be closer to the original, but I’m only guessing.

    I watched the ending twice as I couldn’t decide if Kameda died at the end , and Richie suggests that they in fact simple go insane together which is where Kurosawa differs from the book ?

    I presume it was intentionally ambiguous, but yes I think its more likely that it was intended to mean they both went insane rather than they actually died.

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    Vili Maunula

    A very interesting look at the characters, Ugetsu. Here are my responses:

    Kameda

    I don’t think Kameda is intended as being “good” in the sense of making the world a better place. Instead, he is “good” simply by being unable to be false or “evil”. Which paradoxically results in him hurting people and making his own position more difficult.

    The world ultimately destroys him because he is incompatible with the world and its social conventions.

    Nasu and Akama

    It is a very good point that the behaviour of these two characters is explicitly explained by their past, but I don’t think that the film intends to offer their past as an excuse to their behaviour. Like you point out, we must remember that also Kameda has suffered terrible things, yet he does not behave like Nasu and Akama do. Kameda here is the Murakami to Nasu and Akama’s Yusa, to use a Stray Dog analogy.

    You are right that Nasu and Akama are more sympathetic than Yusa, and that Kameda’s behaviour could be seen more as a result of his illness than his character. But I’m not entirely sure where the distinction in his case really lies. Surely his experiences and the resulting illness are part of his character just as much as Nasu’s and Akama’s characters were influenced by their difficult upbringing?

    The drama triangle

    This is not directly related to what you wrote, but I just thought that I’d mention that of all the different theories of triangular relationships, I think that the Karpman drama triangle fits The Idiot near perfectly.

    Ayako

    I find Ayako a difficult character to like. I don’t actually see her as a very good character at all. She is mean and quite selfish throughout, the real “idiot” as she herself says at the end. At least Kameda and Nasu, maybe even Akama, try in their own strange ways to help others, but with Ayako I never really see that happening.

    The message

    The Idiot is one of those books that I just can’t finish. I have tried reading the book at least four times now. Every time I end up putting it down, uninterested. The story is interesting but Dostoyevsky’s style isn’t able to maintain this interest. For this month’s film club I intended to try and read it again, or rather listen to an audio book version, but again I just couldn’t bring myself to finish it.

    With that out of the way, I think that the story does have a spiritual message to it. I think the question to ask is whether Kameda really is ill in the first place, or whether he is more cured than the rest of the society. The reason he appears so simple-minded to his peers and to us is because he bypasses social conventions and follows his feelings.

    “In a mad world only the mad are sane” (Ran) and “a stray dog becomes a mad dog” (Stray Dog), and so on.

    It must be said that I don’t think that the intention is to get us to drop all social conventions and turn into Kameda-like simpletons, but it does raise questions about the artificiality of the world that we have built for ourselves.

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    Amnesty11

    Vili, I agree — when I read The Idiot so many years ago, it was a sludge.. I had to finish it for a paper or an exam I recall, so there was no opting out.

    With that out of the way, I think that the story does have a spiritual message to it. I think the question to ask is whether Kameda really is ill in the first place, or whether he is more cured than the rest of the society. The reason he appears so simple-minded to his peers and to us is because he bypasses social conventions and follows his feelings.

    I do still wonder about the message. I felt an overwhelming sense of spirituality in this film. Maybe it was Kameda as Jesus, or Kameda as Buddha. He certainly went against all social conventions as did Jesus and Buddha. I’m not certain about Buddha but Jesus was considered quite the radical rabbi and of course mentally deranged in some circles.

    Raised as a Unitarian, I’m more interested in Jesus and Buddha as historical figures that changed the world than their spirituality. What they taught was for us all to be more like Kameda. And Ayako’s final awakening to her selfishness and lack of loving kindness points to this. Do you think Kurosawa had any thoughts like this — a spiritual righteousness? Or maybe not a spiritual righteousness. Perhaps a Humanist quest, that we all awaken to our potential to put ourselves in others shoes, to feel what others feel, to act right and do right based on our selflessness instead of acting wrong and doing wrong based on our selfishness?

    By the way, is Kameda destroyed? We can’t know if joining Akama into lunacy isn’t a better place after all.

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    Vili Maunula

    Amnesty: Do you think Kurosawa had any thoughts like this — a spiritual righteousness? Or maybe not a spiritual righteousness. Perhaps a Humanist quest, that we all awaken to our potential to put ourselves in others shoes, to feel what others feel, to act right and do right based on our selflessness instead of acting wrong and doing wrong based on our selfishness?

    I would say that there definitely is a very strong undercurrent of this idea throughout his works — that we all have this potential that you mentioned — at least up until Dodesukaden. And perhaps also in the latter works, although there he seems to be less certain whether he as an artist can actually have any effect on us.

    Amnesty: By the way, is Kameda destroyed? We can’t know if joining Akama into lunacy isn’t a better place after all.

    I always thought that Kameda died, but Longstone’s question made me unsure. The Criterion (Eclipse) edition translates Ayako’s mother’s words at the end as:

    Poor thing. I feel so sorry for him. No matter what anyone says, he was a fine person. He was too good for this world. Even that worthless Karube came, flowers in hand. He actually had tears in his eyes.

    To me, this would seem to suggest that Kameda is really dead by the end of the film. I can imagine her talking in past tense about a person gone totally insane, but “he was too good for this world” and “Karube came, flowers in hand” seem to me to indicate a death.

    Either way, Kameda may be better off now than mingling with the likes of Akama, Nasu and Ayako.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Whoah

    One thing that played on my mind was the nature of Kameda’s illness , firstly, if I remember correctly , according to the voice over he returns from treatment for a breakdown resulting from an incident where he is wrongly accused of being a war criminal ? or perhaps they meant a prisoner of war

    Longstone

    I’ve been to the Peter and Paul fortress in St. Petersburg where Dostoevsky was imprisoned, brought before a firing squad, given his last rites, heard the countdown, then was pardoned. Two others went insane from the experience-this much is fact-and the Myishkin character in the Idiot has the same story! For Dostoevsky this event was a turning point toward renewing his Christian faith.

    I believe Kurosawa kills off Myishkin in the film, dead not merely mad (the scene of Mifune and Mori under the blanket at night…with the idea of Hara’s dead body just feet away…is unforgettable–almost laughable, but incredibly creepy and scary and weird and heartbreaking (btw worrying about the body smelling…that’s because in the book this happens in warm weather).

    Wow, what a gorgeous spring we are having.. the crab apple blossoms are in bloom outside my office window…a world of white flowers! Their ephemeral beauty makes me feel like this film…once you are no longer innocent, the world’s beautiful things must pass…

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    lawless

    To go back to Ugetsu’s original question, I think the issue is more the difference between passive goodness and active goodness. I think Kameda sees the characters’ pasts as explaining their actions, not excusing them. What he offers them is acceptance, something Ayama didn’t receive from his father and which Naeko doesn’t receive from society.

    It’s also important to remember that not only was Dostoevsky a Christian, he was an existentialist. So, on my reading, was Kurosawa, and I think the combination of that, the drama inherent in his plots, and strong and distinctive characters is what drew Kurosawa to Dostoevsky. As an aside, I love Dostoevsky and his writing style, even though it can sometimes be overly florid, but Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov contain his best writing. In many ways, writing The Idiot was a prelude to writing The Brothers Karamazov.

    I also pretty much agree with everything Vili says, especially about Ayako.

    It’s clear, from Ayako’s mother’s words in the last scene, that Kameda is dead. I wish we had been told what happened to Ayama and made it clear whether Kameda died of natural causes or whether Ayama killed him. I’m glad that I wasn’t misremembering that in the book, Prince Myshkin returns to the asylum.

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    lawless

    Longstone – The character Kameda is based on is epileptic. He’s also something of a holy fool.

    Ugetsu – Actually, imo, Kurosawa changed the story pretty radically when he changed the ending. Kameda dies and is held up as a model by Ayako; we don’t see it, but the implication is that she will be less capricious in the future. In the book, Kameda goes mad (as does Akama, who is sent to prison for killing Taeko — apologies for calling her Naeko elswhere) and his example has no influence on the people who remain. It’s almost as if he’d never been there in the first place. So the book’s ending is bleaker than the movie’s.

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