Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Walking Kurosawa's Road: The Idiot

The Idiot (aka Hakuchi, aka 白痴) (Akira Kurosawa, 1951)
"Dostoevsky wanted to portray a genuinely good man. Ironically, he chose an idiot for his hero. But a truly good man may appear as an idiot to others. This is a story of the ruin of a pure and simple man."
Kurosawa's nearly three hour adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's semi-autobiographical novel (it was originally 4 hours 46 minutes before the distributor cut it down*), but relocated to perpetually snowed-under modern-day Sapporo Japan, has the feel of a film that has been sashimied by a studio looking to keep the highlights—apparently most of the 99 minutes of cuts is in the first few reels. It certainly feels that way with several overly-expository interstitials, one voice-over commentary, and brutally inserted swipe-transitions, one party sequence has them every seven seconds or so without any sort of transition indicated for time or space. Yes, the screen-wipes feel like Kurosawa moves, but one doubts that he'd have used them so frequently and in such places that didn't need them other than to cut time.
The film is in two parts—chapters, if you will—separated by a convalescence from an epileptic seizure by the titular character, Kinji Kameda (Masayuki Mori), a war veteran who was nearly executed as a war criminal but pardoned at the last minute and now suffers from "epileptic hysteria" (or "idiocy" as described in the film among the laymen). At the start of the first chapter (entitled "Love and Agony"), Kameda is returning home to Sapporo by train after rehabilitation in an asylum, his sleep interrupted by nightmares of waiting for his execution. One of those outbursts wakes up self-described "lout" Denkichi Akama (Toshirô Mifune), who would normally cuff one such as Kameda for annoying him, but the two strike up a friendship of sorts—after all, both are going to the same town.
Their purposes couldn't be more different: Kameda is returning home for the first time since the war, his father is dead, and he is going to meet with Mr. Ono (Takashi Shimura), his "only relative in the world". We'll get to Ono and his family in a minute, but Akama's story is that of a prodigal son. His father was abusive—Akama mentions that he hasn't laughed in years due to his childhood, but two things have brought him happiness: 1) meeting with the friendly Kameda on the train and 2) his meeting Taeko Nasu (Setsuko Hara), whom he met six months earlier. Even though she had been a concubine to the wealthy businessman Tohata (Eijirô Yanagi) since the age of 14—years in which Tohata abused her—Akama was so entranced that he stole money from his wealthy father to buy her a diamond ring. At that time, Taeko ran away from her oppressor and Akama fled the wrath of his father over the theft. His father now dead, Akama is returning to claim his inheritance and to find Taeko again. So, two fatherless men, untethered from their past, are returning home.
In a store-front window, they come across a portrait of Taeko, and Kameda is overtaken by the sadness that he can see in her eyes—Kameda's war-time experience has given him, inspired by the relief he felt at his death sentence being commuted, a gentle spirit reverent of all life, no matter the circumstances. He doesn't judge, as he was judged, and he is always first to see the good in whoever he meets, and responds with heartfelt empathy. Even a "lout" like Akama, he feels great affection for, and, unreservedly, despite Akama's past values him as a friend, something Akama has never known before in his life. Akama can't see the pain behind the eyes of Taeko's portrait, but he admires Kameda's sensitivity.
There are complications—of course, there are complications, as this is Russian Literature, after all, even if set in Japan!—involving just about everybody: Tohata is offering a ¥600,000 dowry to whomever will marry Taeko in order to disassociate himself from her and her bad public persona, and his own wretched behavior (of course!) and guess who's going to take him up on the offer? 

No, you'd be wrong if you thought Akama—this is Russian Literature, not a Grimm's Fairy Tale! Kayama (Minoru Chiaki) is willing to marry her! Who's Kayama? He's the guy renting a room to Kameda...at the behest of Mr. Ono, who also happens to be his employer. That's how our friend Kameda gets mixed up in all this! And, of course, when Kameda and Taeko meet, she's drawn to him because he's the only person in town who doesn't treat her like "used goods", and, in fact, speaks to her with warmth and empathy and no judgment.
Emotions run so high that they can become quite comical,
like this party-guest's shocked reaction to Kameda's selflessness.

All of this happens at the planned engagement party for Kayama and Taeko, much to the consternation of Kayama, Tohata, and Ono and the shocked amazement of the party guests, who act just like the gossipy town-hens in one of John Ford's movies. We won't even get into what happens when Akama (remember him? Mifune!) busts into the party with his gang of cut-throats and offers ¥1,000,000 for Taeko.
Leave it at that, because even there, it gets more complicated without the plot advancing. Because we haven't even gotten into people's psyches and second-guessing each other yet. Both Kameda and Akama love Taeko. Taeko loves Akama but realizes that Kameda is the better man, but since she's a concubine, she thinks she doesn't deserve a better man, but how can she settle for Akama when she's met Kameda, whom she doesn't want to shackle with a concubine and especially when Akama loves Taeko enough that even Kameda thinks she should be with him, except that Taeko thinks he deserves someone better, who is Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga)
Ayako? Who's Ayako?

Well, that is dealt with a bit in Part One, and even more in the second part, "Love and Loathing."  Ayako is Mr. Ono's youngest daughter, who is a bit of a brat and whose emotions turn on a dime, but is still quite a bit taken with Kameda, even though she still keeps referring to him as "an idiot", and who (by the way) is desired by Kayama (the guy who was supposed to marry Taeko?).

Small town, that Sapporo...
To his eternal credit, Kurosawa manages to keep this three-wedding-ring circus straight and easily understood by an audience, even at a length of nearly 3 hours. His compositions are fairly consistently triangular, emphasizing that two people in the frame is company, but three is a crowd, with no straight back-and-forth, but a constant caroming off into odd directions. Nobody thinks to ask what another person might want; they just make the decisions for them, and that can't come to any good. Extended periods of dialogue keep the shifting affections and best intentions clear enough, even if nobody spends any time questioning their decisions. One would think that with emotions at such a high boil, sometime they might simmer to a point of vacillation. But, no, people come to their conclusions and, like the ornate snow encrusting everything in the city, they remain frozen in place.
What works against the story...is the story. The high dramatics are sometimes so over-the-top that one is forced to suppress both the giddiness rising up in one's consciousness and the objective sensibility that might curb the more histrionic decisions that are come to in the course of the movie. Maybe that cut footage might have neutered some of the extremes in the film, but one doubts it, and by the time one gets nearer the end of the film, things have gone to such an extreme that one simple gives up and accepts that this is where the story will go, despite one's misgivings.
Despite its length, despite its histrionics, despite all of that, it was one of Japan's most 10 popular movies that year (it would not be released in the United States until 1963—indeed, the year of The Idiot's release in Japan would see only the first of Kurosawa's films to make its way to the United States, which was Rashomon which premiered here December 26, 1951). Its reputation is a bit dimmer than his other films, but, then, any film would when sandwiched between Rashomon, his previous film, and his next film, which would be one of the greatest—if not the greatest—films Kurosawa ever made.

* Kurosawa didn't want to edit it, but suggested it be released in two parts, instead. The studio insisted it should be one release with the film cut in half. "In that case," Kurosawa answered back, "better cut it length-wise." 
When working for the studio again in 1991, Kurosawa looked for the missing pieces...to no avail.

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