Kurosawa’s 1951 adaptation of “The Idiot”


For me Akira Kurosawa (1910-98) is the greatest of film directors—perhaps not my favorite, but the greatest. Kurosawa’s favorite author was Dosteovesky, who for me was a great bad writer, and more than a little of a monster. Kurosawa admired the Russian novelist’s compassion, who, in Kurosawa’s view, refused to avert his eyes from suffering and suffered with the benighted.

Kurosawa first teamed Mifune Toshirô and Shimura i Takashi n a very Dosteoveskyan film about self-destructiveness, “The Drunken Angel” in 1948, and made great Dosteoveskyan movies starring each of them separately, “Ikiru” with Shimura in 1952, and Red Beard with Mifune in 1965. Kurosawa’s one film based on a Dosteovesky novel, “Hakuchi” (1951)with dialogue lifted from the novel but transported from summer in Saint Petersburg to a very snowy winter in a small city on Hokkaido, is more like a collection of illustrations of the novel than a film adaptation. Whether this is Kurosawa’s fault is a subject for debate. he shot a 265-minute version that was pared down to 166. The movie is quite disjointed and very difficult to follow without knowledge of Dosteovesky’s 1869 novel (which I have twice bogged down in and abandoned trying to read). Yet there are scenes that are excruciatingly protracted and the surviving movie feels like a very long 166 minutes.

In “Hakuchi”, as in Dosteovesky’ novel, Kameda Kinji (Masayuki Mori playing the Prince Myushkin in Dosteovesky’s novel The Idiot) is an epileptic. Like Dosteovesky Kameda was sentenced to death and reprieved at the last moment, and severely unbalanced by that. Unlike Dosteovesky, he turned into a saintly “holy fool,” guileless, and trying to do good.

The movie begins with him on the way back to Hokkaido (the cold, northern island of Japan, geographically and culturally closest to Russia) from the tropical Okinawa. On the same boat is Akama Denkichi (Mifune Toshirô, playing the Rogozhin role). Immediately upon their return, they see a large photo of Nasu Taeko (Hara Setsuko , playing the Natasha Filippovna role).


There are very lengthy intertitles providing background that was probably dramatized rather than written in the 99 minutes that the studio cut from the film. Nasu Taeko is being put aside (after being set up in business) by her patron, who is paying a (de facto) dowry for her to marry an opportunist. Akama offers a higher price for her, and Kameda recognizes a beautiful soul under the morally compromised courtesan’s hard shell.

It is very difficult for me to see what makes Taeko so entrancing. Rather than the fun-loving Natasha from the book, the film’s version is something of a Fury. With her severely pulled-back hair and black cape, she seems to have wandered from Cocteau’s “Orphée” (Maria Casarés’s Angel of Death), glowering like Joan Crawford. Kameda is more understandably drawn to the consequential (that is, less forbidding!) Ayako (Kuga Yoshiko, as the Aglaya Ivanovna character). After Ono, Ayako’s father (Shimura Takashi) reveals that Kinji has substantial property and can afford to take a wife, Kameda vacillates between the spirited but jealous youngster (Ayako) and the emotionally scarred and intense Nasu Taeko, who lives with Akama but cannot make up her mind between Akama and Kameda.


For me the best parts of the movie are when Kameda and Akama have tea with Akama’s religious zealot, all-but-deaf mother Higashiyama Chieko, and when Kameda goes to Tokyo trying to find Taeko. For about ten minutes, it is as if the movie was a silent German Expressionist movie about a delicate soul cracking under pressure. There is a scene from inside a store out past a window display of knives to Kameda looking in that is high Fritz Lang. Similarly, after Kameda has visited Akama, there is a striking image of Akama glaring out the door in the window. The penultimate scene of Kameda and Akama and candles in Akama’s ramshackle (dare I saw “Gothic”?) mansion also is a succession of striking visual compositions (more Eisenstein than Lang).

So, there is some amazing stuff in the movie, but Dosteovesky’s concerns (Christian faith, political radicalism he regarded as nihilism, and urban vices) seem to have drowned somewhere in the Sea of Oshotsk (that is, in transit from Russia). Kurosawa brilliantly rethought Shakespeare into Japanese feudal contexts (“Macbeth” as “Throne of Blood,” “King Lear” as “Ran’), and, as I’ve already suggested, made some very Dosteoveskyan movies, but “Hakuchi” is a mess, and I’m not convinced that another 99 minutes of it would have made it better (though, presumably, it was less disjointed before the studio cut out 99 minutes). The presentation of (and conception of) Taeko is wrong—not just unfaithful to the novel, but making the major dynamics of the story unbelievable. And such control freak as Kurosawa did not leave it to Hara Setsuko to provide her own conception of the character. Similarly,* Taeko’s look and grimness punctuated only by bursts of hysteria has to have come from Kurosawa.

I also blame Kurosawa for the selection of music, including bits from “Peer Gynt” and recurrent eerie overdrive music from “Night on Bald Mountain” (and, I think, some from “Rite of Spring”).

There is only one Kurosawa movie that I actively dislike (“Dodesukaden”), though I find the three he directed after his towering career-summing “Ran” fairly inconsequential (a sort of second childhood). “Hakuchi” is very difficult to like, though some people adore it. Kurosawa rejected the notion that the film was a failure—as entertainment! I consider it sometimes dazzling with some extraordinary images, but remarkably unentertaining. Kurosawa, however, claimed “At least as entertainment, it is not a failure. Of all my films, people wrote me most about this one. If it had been as bad as all that, they wouldn’t have written me.” Well, there is a major tradition of revering noble failures in Japanese culture (see Ivan Morris’s fascinating 1975 book, The Nobility of Failure, and admirers of Dosteovesky (like Dosteovesky himself) tend to extremes of exaltation that strike me as pathological. Some people who revere Dosteovesky far more than I do, love this movie, but even among those not put off by black-and-white movies in Japanese and running 166 minutes, “Hakuchi” is a tough sell. (And, IMO, it is an endurance test at 166 minutes. No one will ever find out what the 265-minute version was like, since none of the cut footage survived.)


* Setsuko Hara is now viewed as an Ozu star. She appeared in Ozu’s Late Spring, Early Summer, Tokyo Story, Tokyo Twilight, Early Autumn, and Late Autumn, but only the first of these was made before “Hakuchi”. She had been the star, playing Yukie Yagihara in Kurosawa’s first commercial success, “No Regrets for My Youth” (1946) and in and Yoshimura Kozaburo’s legendary (and frustratingly unavailable “The Ball at the Anjo House” (1947).

Mori had been the nobleman husband in “Rashômon,” Kurosawa’s first international success, as well as in Kurosawa’s (1945) “The Men Who Tread On the Tiger’s Tail” and ” Sugata Sanshiro, Part Two” (1945). The only part in later Kurosawa movies he played was as one of the corrupt executives in “The Bad Sleep Well,” though he starred in Kenji Mizoguchi’s magnificent Ugetsu monogatari (1953), and had costarred with Setusko Hara in “The Ball at the Anjo House.”


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

The movie is available on he Criterion Postwar Kurosawa set.

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