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The Idiot: Transposing the Apocalypse

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    Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, Vol 34 No 2 (2007) has an interesting essay by Alexander Burry titled “Transposing the Apocalypse: Kurosawa’s The Idiot”. Luckily for us, the essay can also be downloaded from the University of Alberta website.

    Burry’s main thesis is that while Dostoevsky’s novel is “apocalyptic” — a warning about an impending societal doom — Kurosawa’s adaptation is “post-apocalyptic”, for in its world the apocalypse (WWII) has already taken place and functions as the prime mover of the story. Burry therefore argues against Richie’s and Prince’s interpretations of The Idiot as a direct adaptation of the novel.

    In his essay, Burry discusses some of the differences between the two works and also comments on the film’s secularism (in contrast to the novel’s strong Christian message), its use of snow as a symbol, as well as Kameda’s near-death experience, which Burry argues has real-life counterpoints in both Dostoevsky’s biography as well as in Japan’s planned late wartime exit plan, the “Honourable Death of a Hundred Million”.

    If you have the time, I would highly recommend taking a look at the essay. I found it very interesting reading and would be quite curious to hear what you think.



    Its a very interesting essay, some stimulating ideas there.

    My first thought on reading it was to compare our discussion on ‘No Regrets for our Youth’ and its seeming contrast of the three paths the main characters in that took to deal with militarism – outright opposition, collaborationism and passive resistance. Is it too much of a stretch to see the three main characters in The Idiot as being an extension of this, but instead each taking a path to deal with war trauma (passive spirituality, self harm and external aggression)? Of course, since they all end up either dead or mad, then it is not exactly presenting an optimistic view of Japans future.



    Looks like you need a login for the article, Vili. I will say that Post-Apocalyptic is about right, though, and good call!

    Without the salvation offered in the Christian story, we really do have the issue of the “bodhisattva-like” character played by Mori not quite achieving “ahimsa” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahimsa) even for himself-much less for others (in another thread his deleterious effect was mentioned).

    So, after the apocalypse-in this world without a savior, those on the planet live out their tragic lives without hope-

    Harrumph…a lot like “The Road” but in Hokkaido, and no nuclear fallout, just human detritus.



    Coco: Looks like you need a login for the article, Vili.

    Really? It opens for me with no problem from the “full text: pdf” link. Here is a direct link as well.

    Great to have you back, Coco!



    Vili, thank you, the direct link worked!!!!

    Good to be back and see newer members active and thoughtful! This is refreshing and fun to have newer eyes on the films!



    Burry’s wonderful essay has some valuable insights. I especially note his remark: (section 175 in the .pdf)

    “By crossing the boundary separating the novelist’s refracted autobiographical material from its initial, experiential source, the film approaches the actual urgency and personal tragedy of the near execution in a way the novel cannot.”

    I might amend by saying…” the novel may not choose to show”..! I am not certain the novel Cannot so much as Will Not. Surely, Kurosawa is more ready to reveal than Dostoevsky, the man…by necessity, it should be understood, continued to live in the world as a writer, and not as a Prince Myishkin!

    But, again, the novel and book are not the same. Let us give Kurosawa credit! Myishkin is an Orthodox believer, and Kameda is not…Kameda’s belief is in human goodness and compassion, and his wartime trauma is the catalyst… he is one who survived, and as such carries both the traumatized need to recall and relive the memory of the event, and the need to make sense and value of his life saved.



    I have mentioned elsewhere that, in the novel, the murder of Nastasya takes place in summer…hence the line…”I was afraid the body would begin to smell”…

    In Kurosawa’s film, there is the character one might say of cold and snow and blinding whiteness…even in the frozen room with the dead body nearby, at the conclusion of the film, one feels and understands the obliterating cold…and know the Mifune and Mori characters will succumb to it.

    Does the whiteness remind you of nuclear fallout…of ash? In Burry’s essay, the metaphor is made with death, stasis. Post-apocalyptic, indeed. Burry states that Kurosawa’s vision is more doomed and fatalistic than that of Dostoevsky. And, I love Burry’s conclusion: Kurosawa, in transporting the story to Hokkaido, and informing it with the knowledge/weight of post-WWII Japan is able to unlock the undeveloped literary version of the pain of the Myishkin character, explores the aftermath of trauma in a way relevant to Japan, and deals, probably, with his own post-apocalyptic trauma.

    I am very grateful to Burry to unearthing and articulating some of the values of Kurosawa’s”The Idiot“-and helping me understand my own aesthetic response in a deeper way.



    Coco: Does the whiteness remind you of nuclear fallout…of ash?

    This had never occurred to me before I read Burry’s essay, but the constant snow could in my opinion easily be interpreted as the ash from a nuclear fallout (only metaphorically, of course).

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