Sunday, August 10, 2014

Director Spotlight #16.7: Akira Kurosawa's The Idiot

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the incalculably influential Akira Kurosawa.

NOTE: There’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 45/C

Kurosawa’s influences are as many as they are varied – John Ford, Yasujiro Ozu, Jean Renoir, Frank Capra, William Shakespeare – but perhaps the most important is Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The great Russian writer’s interests in morality and human nature shaped Kurosawa’s own obsessions, and with films like Drunken Angel, Stray Dog and Rashomon he came closer to capturing Dostoyevsky’s philosophical inquisitiveness. Kurosawa finally got the chance to adapt his favorite writer’s work in 1951 with The Idiot, which reset the novel of the same name in Japan.

The film originally ran in two parts at 265 minutes, which would have made it the longest film of Kurosawa’s career by some margin (even Seven Samurai is "only" 207). But when an early screening was poorly received, the studio, Shochiku, demanded extensive cuts. The next cut was 166 minutes, which the studio still said was too long (Kurosawa bitterly remarked then that it "should be cut lengthwise instead"), but released it anyway to negative reviews. Kurosawa would try to find the lost footage while shooting 1991’s Rhapsody in August, but to no avail. It’s easy, then, to lament The Idiot as a lost masterpiece. That possibility exists, but the truth is likely closer to "lost folly."

Masayuki Mori (the samurai in Rashomon) stars as Kinji Kameda, a man whose being falsely accused of war crimes caused a series of seizures that have since rendered him mentally ill. On his voyage home, he befriends the wealthy Akama (Toshiro Mifune), who’s in love with Taeko (frequent Ozu muse Setsuko Hara), the former mistress of another man. Kameda falls for both Taeko and another woman, Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga, another Ozu regular). He’s torn between the two women just as Taeko is torn between the passionate but violent Akama and the simple and sweet Akama.

The Idiot works best in isolated moments – a festival set to "Night on Bald Mountain," a series of close-ups in a party where everyone’s too nervous to say anything about Taeko’s ill-repute, the introduction of a snowy and melancholy Hokkaido – than in full scenes. Much of that has to do with the extensive damage done to the film, particularly in the first half. Too often Kurosawa is forced to cut to an intertitle to fill in the gaps of what’s missing, both in terms of character, plot, and even original intention (example: "Dostoyevsky wanted to portray a good man and the destruction of a good soul in a faithless world"). Even when he reaches a point where this is no longer required, it still feels like characters have been simplified or we’re missing information that would make performances more coherent. Hara in particular is impressive mostly on a scene-to-scene basis rather than as a full performance.

But even had Kurosawa’s full version seen the light of day, it’s hard to imagine The Idiot being a particularly successful film. Like most great novels, the works of Dostoyevsky are difficult to translate to film because most of what’s great about them is in the prose and the thoughts of the characters rather than in the story. Removing that from the equation feels fundamentally misguided. And while Masayuki Mori was a talented actor, he can’t quite overcome his character’s function as the embodiment of human goodness and innocence, something that feels better suited to the page than the screen in this case.

Worse, Kurosawa is so reverent to the text that his imagination and usually immaculate sense of pacing have disappeared. Individual scenes drag on forever, while others repeat the same points made earlier in the film (if you didn’t get that Kameda is innocent and honest and wonderful the first time, you’ll get a reminder soon, possibly in the next scene). The Idiot has fewer memorable or evocative shots than nearly any other Kurosawa film, as if asserting his own personality would sully the work. Even scenes that feature strong work from the actors are frequently weakened by Kurosawa laying on a heavenly choir to underline Kameda’s saintliness. The great director would have far greater success years later by setting Shakespeare in Japan with Throne of Blood and Ran, but those works forced him to actually reimagine Shakespeare’s text and story for the setting and medium. This is mostly stenography in light, a film that captures Dostoyevsky’s text without preserving its pulse.

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