Posted for the Kurosawa blogathon:
Akira Kurosawa's 1951 film Hakuchi (The Idiot), his adaptation of Dostoevsky's novel, is pretty much forgotten now, or is rarely mentioned when talking about the filmmaker or his masterworks. The work is seriously flawed--about a hundred minutes were chopped off before the film was released, and you can see Kurosawa trying to make up for this with lengthy expository titles and voiceover narrations, trying to explain the characters' complex relationships in a few minutes of screen time. Critics who do get past the rushed, awkward beginning note the film's literalness, its director's apparent need to get as much of the novel as possible up on the big screen.
Kurosawa transposed Russia to Hokkaido, for several possible reasons: Hokkaido, located at the northernmost tip of Japan, is in terms of landscape, architecture, and clothing considered the most Western-looking of all of Japan's islands; in wintertime, with everyone decked out in fur, the streets looks particularly European. Kurosawa may have been looking for more than a Russian-style snowstorm, though: a master of onscreen weather, he recruits the various manifestations of the season to help express his characters' inner states, from gentle snowfall to harsh sleet to mysterious fog. Snow and ice make fantastical shapes in the form of frozen cascades, thick blankets, grotesque mushroom growths; his characters walk through them as if through an enchanted forest. Kurosawa has made expressive use of summer heat before (Nora inu (Stray Dog, 1949) comes to mind), but wintertime is weather made visible, even palpable, and Kurosawa makes full use of the season's visual possibilities in this production, possibly more so than in any other of his projects.
The film finally starts to be great in the scene where an evening party is thrown by Tohata (Ejiro Yanagi), the wealthy man who supports Takeo Nasu (Setsuko Hara, as the novel's Nastassia), and is presumably her lover. The first shot is a stunner: the camera pulls back from a huge rattan chair, and through the chair's high, soaring backrest we see Nasu sitting in the middle of a greenhouse, in the middle of a snowstorm (the rattan's weave and the greenhouse's metal frame are a visual symbols of her imprisonment by Tohata--her status as caged bird (she's wrapped in black like a raven) and exotic flower, blooming in the midst of winter). She's tense, upset--Tohata is marrying her off to Koyama (Minoru Chiaki, playing the novel's Ganya) with a dowry of 600,000 yen; Kurosawa indicates her tension by wiping the frame several times, each successive wipe showing her heading for the wet bar and drinking a glass of champagne, then another, then another.
Then follows a wonderful wordless sequence where Nasu sits at the couch, silent, while the three men in her life stand around her worried. Ono (the great Takashi Shimura), whose machinations are about to come to fruition that night (he arranged the marriage) looks at her suitor Kayama who, glancing at Nasu, throws a look back at Ono; Ono turns to Tohata, who stares at Nasu, still unmoving (the music here, which sets the pace of Kurosawa's precisely timed cuts, is as lovely as it is thrilling). It's obvious what's on all three's minds: What is she thinking? Will she agree to this engagement, or will she make trouble? Cut to an outside shot where the camera glides sideways through the snow, peering through the window and the couples dancing within, catching a glimpse of the seated Nasu along the way. Cut back inside to the motionless Nasu, then (in reverse order) to the staring Tohata, who looks back at Ono, who looks back at Kayama. The tension is broken; Ono grins as if saying: "she'll come around." Then the maid announces that Kameda (Masayuki Mori) has arrived. Kameda is Dostoevsky's Prince Mishkin, his idiot, his holy fool, who will throw the three men's plans into complete disarray; only now do you realize that that shot outside in the snow was a glimpse of Nasu through Kameda's eyes. What was she thinking? Kurosawa without our knowing it has already given us the answer--she's thinking of the man in the snow, peering at her through the window as he approached the door.
It's a long scene that gets better as it goes along. At one point there's a startling shot of Nasu hovering vulturelike in front of a valuable vase before she dashes it on the floor; later Akama (Toshiro Mifune as the novel's Rogozhin--a perfect match) arrives to throw a million yen on the table for Nasu's hand; still later Kayama stands before the fireplace, rigid, wide-eyed, while the same million yen burns to ashes. The scene, incidentally, may be Chiaki's finest as an actor: he's been a genial, even funny presence in many of Kurosawa's films, but here he shines; Dostoevsky, with his unparalleled ability at measuring the height and depth of a man's dignity or depravity, often both simultaneously, challenges Chiaki, who rises--pale, trembling--to the occasion.
Then there's the climax, a confrontation between Nasu and Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga as the novel's Aglaia) with Kameda as the prize (please skip this and the next paragraph if you plan to see the film). Kurosawa prepares for it elaborately enough, with parallel scenes of Nasu and Kameda expressing their fears to their respective mates, Akama and Ayako, about the meeting. Kameda and Ayako ascend the stairs to Akama's room, with Akama looking down at them through a stained-glass window (their ascent reminds you of a convict and her guard's climb up to the gallows' platform). Nasu's senses are so keyed up she can hear them coming even if she's seated away from the stairs. She stands; she turns. Her eyes widen at the sight of Kameda, the man she hopelessly loves; her eyes widen further at the sight of Ayako, his fiancé. Ayako's eyes are downcast--presumably out of modesty, though you suspect it's more out of fear. The two women sit down. Ayako edges away from Nasu about an inch; Nasu just keeps staring at her. Kameda steps forward, alarmed at what he senses between the two; Akama leans back amused, interested in what might happen next. Ayako pulls a bit of hair back with her hand, and Nasu visibly reacts to this seeming effrontery--how dare this girl move under her gaze?
The gesture gives Ayako the courage to look at Nasu. When their eyes meet, it's Hara's moment: her eyes are huge, brows swept upwards at the edges like gull wings--she looks like a feathered demon; Yoshiko's Ayako can barely stand up to the stare, but does, somehow--her expression gains courage in response. Kurosawa cuts to a shot of the room's wood-burning stove, flaring up from the icy wind (I wouldn't be surprised to learn that one reason why Kurosawa turned Russia in summer to Hokkaido in winter is just so he could include that fiery stove). Ayako looks away first; Nasu's eyes relax and take on a hooded look. At one point Nasu laughs, a wild, despairing laugh--it's perhaps the strangest moment in the whole film, because Kurosawa doesn't show her laughing; we just hear a high screech, almost a stuttering shriek (this is the second time; the first is when she laughs at Tohata's party). Does Kurosawa cut away because he felt Hara couldn't do it (though assuming the sound really is Hara's voice, I'd say she can)? Or is cutting away his way of suggesting that it's too much to put onscreen?
As Kinji Kameda, Masayuki Mori (he played the husband in Rashomon (1950)) keeps his frail hands under his chin, a gesture that emphasizes his wide eyes and wider forehead; the overall impression is of someone childlike, helpless. As Taeko Nasu, Setsuko Hara gives us a performance worlds away from her serene spinsters in Yasujiro Ozu's films--this Nastassia is a fire-breathing woman, totally in the grip of her tempestuous emotions, unable to tolerate anyone who dares defy her, yet willing to surrender to anyone capable of understanding her. Toshiro Mifune as Denkichi Akama is ostensibly the most violent of the cast of characters, but his violence really feeds off of Nasu's perversity and Kameda's innocence; in Dostoevsky's upside-down yet totally familiar world (he wouldn't have so much power over our imaginations if his characters weren't so recognizably us) Akama may be as innocent a pawn as Kameda.
Dostoevsky's novels often take a philosophical principle or proposal then "test" it or explore its various consequences in dramatic terms; Kurosawa, in films like Rashomon and Ikiru (1952) has done much of the same. Hakuchi might be described as Dostoevsky's attempt to show us how a saintly innocent would act or be treated in our cynical, often malicious world of today--just the kind of proposition Kurosawa might apply one one of his characters. His adaptation of The Idiot is arguably his most direct and comprehensive attempt at adapting Dostoevsky--perhaps too direct, one might argue: Kurosawa is possibly more successful streamlining a Dostoevskyian character and letting him loose onscreen for a relatively short two-plus hours (Watanabe in Ikiru), than in trying to include every character and subplot in a novel, where said novel really needs a mini-series to do it justice.
But Kurosawa has never been known for timidity or caution, and in fact his need to cram more and more in his pictures (in direct opposition to films about "green tea over rice"--his dismissive (and more than a little unfair) description of Ozu's films) has resulted in at least one masterpiece, the massive two-hundred minute Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954) arguably the greatest action film ever made. One wonders what his two-hundred sixty-six minute Hakuchi would have been like (it exceeds Samurai's running time by over an hour); as is, one can't help but admire this, his butchered one hundred sixty-six minute version, for its passion and reckless beauty.
(Originally published in High Life Magazine, September 2005)