Thursday, March 4, 2010

THE IDIOT (Akira Kurosawa, 1951, Japan)
Kameda rises from the dead, the moral debt of his past reduced to a small stone that he carries in his pocket. Director Akira Kurosawa adapts Dostoevsky’s 1869 Russian novel by placing the characters in a 20th century context. More Western than traditional Japanese, it reflects the same desires and fears that taint our collective consciousness, depicting the fury of human nature across cultural and racial borders: we all suffer the same spiritual disease.

The film begins on a train, a metaphor for both Kameda and Akama who are trapped on the same one-way path unable to alter their destinies. Kameda’s body is sick but his soul pure, while Akama is a virile playboy whose spirit is damned. They form a bond based on trust and sympathy: the act of trading charms creates a brotherly obligation to one another, like the sharing of sins and penance. Nasu is a troubled young woman, sexually assaulted from childhood into her adult life, who comes between them. She loves Kameda but has a tarnished self-image (as do many victims of childhood trauma) and feels that she isn’t good enough for him, fearing her nature will corrupt his saintly virtue. Akama is enraptured with Nasu and the two of them are a company of misery, despising each other but accepting their fate: neither is able to acknowledge the chance that they can change.

Kameda is Christ figure his innocence and purity an antitoxin that draws the poison from others, helps them to see their own dark reflections in his tear stained eyes. He miraculously received an eleventh-hour reprieve from execution, an innocent man accused of deserting the Army, and in those long minutes before the firing squad he lost his mind…but regained his soul. His kindness is misunderstood as naïveté or stupidity; his wisdom accounts only the good in people, deleting their sins from the cosmic ledger.

Akama is a tough and insincere bastard, a man who is the true idiot; that is, lost in a desperate world of self. His environment is an extension of his bankrupt principles: cold, dank, lighted by a tiny tongue of flame, his home is like a tomb-world sealed beneath the frozen ground. He hates Kameda because his nemesis is the man he can never be, but he also loves him for the same reason.

Nasu is a “kept-woman” since childhood, raped by an older man and used as a receptacle for his brutish lust. She lives a life without physical want because her abuser a wealthy businessman, and this drives her towards Akama who is very much like her tormentor. She dresses in a flowing black cloak that hides her shameful femininity, and seems like a shadow flitting through life’s periphery.

The first hour of the film is a narrative disaster. The story is chopped haphazardly utilizing wipes within the same scene and confusing transitions, while title cards and omniscient narration is used for exposition. The film is a symphony of disharmony and becomes deluged with sudden fades and brief vignettes. Suddenly, the scene of the dinner party allows the story to begin without further explanation and it settles down into its own circadian rhythm: one can only dream about Kurosawa’s original cut, now lost to the ages.

Kameda is willing to die to save his friend Akama and the woman they both love, and they all suffer through a dark night of the soul. Akama remains true to his nature and acts upon his impulses, the naked results of his final act cold upon the altar of his cruelty. Even in death, Kameda won’t allow his friend to walk alone. Final Grade: (B+)


Samuel Wilson said...

This was a huge disappointment to me when I first saw it, before I learned of how compromised the existing version is. It has some beautiful moments but "mess" is definitely the word for the whole.

Alex DeLarge said...

In adapting Dostoevsky, Kurosawa makes one of his most un-Dostoevskyian films: though ripe with cinematic treasures, the characterizations are mostly flat, like the first half of SCANDAL.

But his next film was probably the most like the great Russian novelist: IKIRU! (review coming soon)