THE IDIOT (Hakuchi) B
Japan (166 mi) 1951 d: Akira Kurosawa
Opening version (180 mi) Extended cut (265 mi)
Opening version (180 mi) Extended cut (265 mi)
I can't ruin the innocent life of a child like you.
— Taeko Nasu (Setsuko Hara)
Kurosawa always enjoyed the challenge of filming great literary works, but certainly a Dostoevsky novel, The Idiot, presented immense challenges simply in length alone. Transporting 19th century events from Saint Petersburg, Russia to the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido following WW II, the Christ-like protagonist Kameda is returning after being falsely charged with war crimes, initially sentenced to death which drove him into a mental breakdown where he continues to have harrowing dreams of his death, leaving him frail and susceptible to epileptic seizures, recovering in an American POW camp. There’s an early scene in this film where Kameda, whose innocence and blunt honesty causes social awkwardness that leaves him known as the Idiot (Masayuki Mori, the slain husband from Kurosawa’s previous 1950 film ROSHÔMON), is walking through a snowy, tree-lined landscape with Yoshiko Kuga as Ayako, where one is immediately reminded of similar post card images from Orson Welles and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), two films that suffered similar fates, as they were both mutilated beyond recognition by the studio brass who felt the director’s four-hour version was unwatchable. Kurosawa’s original cut was 100 minutes longer than the only surviving print and an hour longer than his highly successful later work SEVEN SAMURAI (1954), which suggests nearly 40 % of the original film is missing. Nestled between two masterworks, there’s every reason to believe this was an epic adaptation, including an array of activities and developments that befit an entire host of novelesque characters, where Kurosawa turns this into a wrenching melodrama, but all we’re left with are fragments, which at times feel underdeveloped, perhaps resembling the tone and structure of one of Kameda’s fever-pitched dreams.
Kameda meets Akama (Toshirô Mifune) on a train back home, two men who are exact opposites, as Kameda is penniless while Akama is wealthy beyond his means, a man who lets no one stand in his way and is as physically aggressive as Kameda is passive. At the train station, they see a picture in a photography studio of Taeko, Setsuko Hara, who worked with Kurosawa previously in NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH (1946), also several Ozu films including TOKYO STORY (1953), where the snowy mood on the streets is beautifully captured in a sequence here, even if it includes Russian dubbed dialogue 'The Idiot' (Akira Kurosawa) ("Однозвучно гремит YouTube (3:33). Kameda mysteriously breaks into tears as he sees the sadness in her eyes, as she’s been a kept women, the mistress of a wealthy businessman since the age of 14, and has obviously been visited by more men than she cares to remember. She’s being sold into marriage for 600,000 yen at a dinner party when Kameda and Akama arrive in a blizzard of snow, where Akama offers a rival bid of one million yen on the spot. This extended sequence runs the gamut in expressing tumultuous emotions, given a backdrop of insidious male behavior, female subjugation, and town gossip, as the deal is brokered by Ayako’s father, Takashi Shimura, who plays something of a slimeball in this picture, a rarity for him as he’s usually the noblest character onscreen. But that part belongs to Kameda, who in a brilliant masterstroke after Taeko has melodramatically rejected all offers, drowning in her own sorrows, penniless and humiliated, claiming no one would want her now, quietly indicates he would accept her as she is, asserting that in his eyes, she remains a pure and faithful woman, which leads to a real contradiction of morals, as Taeko is stunned by this admission and truly touched at hearing it, as men have only wanted to dominate and control her. Akama is stunned as well, wondering what business it is of Kameda to butt in on his offer, which he feels is just as genuine, amazed that his frail friend has suddenly become his biggest rival. This masterful party sequence beautifully interweaves the lead characters and their relationship to one another, while also establishing the town’s inclination to ridicule Kameda.
While offscreen, the two men attempt to win Taeko’s hand, but she regrets it can’t be Kameda, fearing her disgraced lifestyle would ruin him. Meanwhile, Kameda has found a defender from Ayako, whose family is the picture of gossip and convention, whose father (Kameda’s uncle) is forced to admit he swindled Kameda out of his inheritance. Liko Ozu, the master of intimate chamber works, Kurosawa uses signature shots which he repeats throughout the picture, that include shots of Kameda pacing out front of Akama’s immense home that is covered in snow hoping he’ll let him in, or a shot of Ayako sitting at the piano in front of a window in her home with snow pelting the glass pane. Snow figures prominently in this version, beautifully capturing the architectural landscape of Hokkaido buried under layers of snow, where much of the narrative takes place in a blizzard, using a Godard-like interior and exterior expression, where a tracking camera captures documentary style street scenes in the snow, also reflected from interior shots looking out large windows, and where inside Akama’s dark, cavernous mansion are rooms filled with snow and ice, resembling images from DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965). But the most outrageous of all is a wonderfully expressive outdoor ice carnival (can’t say there’s anything else like it), skaters wearing masks while carrying sparklers, all set to the frenetic music from Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” Mussorgsky-Stokowski "A Night on Bare Mountain" YouTube (9:47), at least partially captured in a short trailer sequence here The Idiot 1951 YouTube (1:03). The finale pits both the two women and the two men against one another, where their fate seems to rest in each other’s arms, each a shadow figure of the other, where Setsuko Hara pulls off her best Joan Crawford imitation while Ayako, something of a caged bird, attempts to find her own wings, but it’s the haunting quiet of the men losing their grip in the darkness of Akama’s frozen mansion, turned into a living tomb, that is the most unsettling, reminiscent of the final apocalyptic father and son scene in DODES’KA-DEN (1970), where the presence of doom is everpresent, yet here its silence is unusually poetic, the gravity broken only by a brief and altogether unnecessary final coda.