Film: The Idiot
Director: Akira Kurosawa (also co-writer)
Mifune: “Hey pal: you just blow in from Stupid prefecture?”
Fyodor Dostoevsky was, and has been memorialized as, a writer possessed of fierce philosophical magnitude. One needn’t read a lick of the Russian literary berserker’s oeuvre to know crises of faith, contemplations of suicide, and inquisitions of virtue abound on his pages like Kathy Bates in a blizzard. A hundred-and-fifty-year interpretive grace period tends to make an artist’s “gist” common knowledge, while auxiliary qualities can fade from immediate attention. Dostoevsky is canonically remembered for his confrontation with human psychology; indeed, he surveyed the psyche like a bat roosting in the rusty carcass of a boxcar. It is probably less known that in The Idiot, published in the late 1860s, he also produced one of the most convoluted boy-meets-girl plots ever brought to fruition.
I weathered the entirety of The Idiot, and have not regretted doing so, but it is too complicated a text for me to pretend I fully grasped it. (I liked Crime and Punishment, but then again I thought it was a comedy.) The novel is a blockier serving of ideas and characters even than other Dostoevsky I have read. It’s also a gushing melodrama that fixates on no less than a love septagram, if not a more scandalous and optical-illusion-inducing love shape.
This 1951 screen adaptation was a minor pet project for Akira Kurosawa, Japanese cinema’s original hometown hero and a lifelong Dostoevsky acolyte. He produced the picture during one of the most fruitful periods in his career, a five-year stretch that also saw the completion of Rashōmon (1950), Ikiru (1952; loosely based on a Tolstoy story), and Seven Samurai (1954). Among these, The Idiot is something of a sour grape. Little of Kurosawa’s bold visual invention is visible, at most a faint flicker of the virtuosity he would show in works like Seven Samurai and his hypnotic transpositions of Shakespeare. One sequence is memorable for its queasy, schizophrenic editing, and the climactic scene trembles atop a masterful subtlety, but the remainder of the movie amounts only to a functional performance of the book.
These may be the marks of artistic discouragement: though Rashōmon had already been completed and released, in 1951 it had not yet been discovered by the overseas audiences who would herald it as groundbreaking; as far as Kurosawa knew, his experiment had been a failure. Moreover, studio interference forced him to cut 99 minutes from The Idiot—footage that is now lost, but that I’m not sure would aid the movie anyhow—which, even at its current running time of nearly three hours, was his most ambitious undertaking to date.
The film is now probably most valuable for its pairing of Setsuko Hara and Toshirō Mifune, who collaborated rarely and were something like Japan’s Streep and De Niro. Mifune plays the principal villain, a seething, jealous fiend named Akama obsessed with Hara’s Taeko, who is what they used to a call a “ruined woman.” Taeko (based on the book’s Nastasya Filippovna) varies her affections between Akama (f.k.a. Rogozhin), who befits her reputation, and a man who genuinely cares for her, the epileptic and feeble-minded (according to the story, these characteristics are inseparable) Kameda, played by Masayuki Mori.
As an arrhythmic title card in the first reel of the movie reminds us, Dostoevsky intended The Idiot to examine the world’s inhospitality to a simply good soul. I was more energized by its questioning of ardor and devotion: Is true love a passionate feeling, out of which we inevitably destroy ourselves and everything around us? Or is it a compassionate one, which makes us want to be destroyed in order to save the one we love? Both forms appear in The Idiot. One is also called “hate,” the other, “pity.” The movie argues that Kameda’s embodiment of the latter is what makes him pure and good. I think, rather, it is his ability to see goodness in all love, even when it brings destruction.
Other authors have lived who were more convincing in their spiritual graduation and keener in their peeking into humanity, but Dostoevsky remains, for me, unparalleled in despair—in his descriptions of mortality and the immeasurable fissures of hopelessness. There is a scene in The Idiot where Kameda recalls the incident that engendered his “idiocy”: convicted of a capital crime and brought to stand before a firing squad, he was saved at the eleventh hour by the arrival of a judicial letter. Though spared his life, the proximity of death drained heavily at his mental faculties. The same happens to the hero of the novel, there called Myshkin. It also happened to Dostoevsky in real life at age 28. We hear the writer’s own voice when Mori describes those minutes that were supposed to be his last—how everyone he had ever met suddenly became so precious to him. “Why hadn’t I been kinder?” Kameda asks, and we feel Dostoevsky’s transformative agony. I was grateful to see this passage, the most affecting in the novel, so faithfully retained. (Incidentally, it is also the only moment in the film that distinctly ties The Idiot to the themes of altruism that Kurosawa addressed in all of his movies through 1965.)