I finished reading The Idiot yesterday--a weird and marvellous book--and immediately afterwards I watched Kurosawa's 1951 adaptation, a DVD I've had for two years but I decided to avoid watching until I'd read the book. This decision was partly influenced by the fact that I knew Kurosawa's film had been butchered by the studio, edited down from four and a half hours to just under three hours. I figured being familiar with the characters and story would help fill in those gaps left by the missing segments.
It's really a tragedy the original cut was lost, though not one of Magnificent Ambersons proportions. There are problems with Kurosawa's Idiot that one can't blame on studio interference. For me, the main issue is Masayuki Mori in the lead role. Best known for his roles in Rashomon and Ugetsu, where he plays essentially ordinary men, his character in The Idiot is a little too idiosyncratic for him. Named Kameda in the movie--Kurosawa moved the story to his contemporary Japan--Mori's take on the character convincingly portrays someone who's not quite there mentally, but Prince Myshkin seemed to have a little more verve than Kameda. The ultimate good man Dostoevsky sought to create often seems simply weak in Mori's hands. Though I do think he was a good actor--a scene where he describes being saved from a military firing squad at the last moment is delivered very well by him.
This story of Kameda's sounded more to me like Pierre's close brush with an execution in War and Peace rather than the experience Myshkin relates in The Idiot, which was the witnessing of a criminal's execution. One of the changes Kurosawa made was to make the lead character a World War II veteran--like so many Japanese films at the time, it's strongly influenced by ruminations on what post World War II Japan was and dealing with the social and psychological baggage left by that war. Kameda's beatific state is attributed to war trauma, rather than to a lifelong struggle with epilepsy, though Kameda is shown to be an epileptic, perhaps a condition brought on by the trauma.
Both Dostoevsky and Kurosawa were themselves epileptics, and I have to wonder at their association of the condition with someone of extraordinary grace and insight. On the other hand, Dostoevsky and Kurosawa were both artists of extraordinary grace and insight.
But to me, The Idiot is fundamentally a story about women. I wondered how Kurosawa, a director known for making films almost exclusively about men, might handle so much material about women. I'm not in the camp who says Kurosawa couldn't discuss women at all with his art--I think The Lower Depths and Red Beard in particular both have examples of really amazing female characters. In The Idiot, Kurosawa's fondness for a very broad performance style influenced by traditional Japanese theatre somewhat sabotages the scenes concerning the female characters. There are indeed some extravagant confrontations in the book, but at least as important are the manipulations and cold wars between the women that I think may have been better carried off by some of Kurosawa's contemporaries, like Mikio Naruse or Yasujiro Ozu. Though I wonder if perhaps some of the subtler build up to the extravagant conversations may have been victims of the studio butcher knife.
However, one thing that can't be blamed on the studio is Kurosawa's rather direct revelation of the nature of Nastassya/Nasu's relationship with the man who had been "keeping" her since childhood. The book never explicitly revealed the relationship--one deduces it from the circumstances: Totsky takes Nastassya from a poor village as a child, has her brought up expensively in an isolated house in the country, and now he wants to find someone to marry her off to, a matter handled by a number of older men with some embarrassment. And she seems to hate him for some reason, but it's her distorted self image more than anything else that suggests the damage done by sexual abuse.
In the movie, the man is somewhat publicly shamed at Nasu's birthday party as it's directly stated repeatedly that he'd been sleeping with her since she was fourteen years old. This takes the story to somewhat broader levels, and misses some of the real impact of such abuse, which often goes forever unspoken and even tacitly accepted by so many people in the girl's family.
Throughout the book, intellectual discussions of "the woman question" are brought up, and people of Russian society are compelled to attach modern ideas about women to Myshkin's devotion to Nastassya. Dostoevsky seems to be arguing entirely with character construction that women are the equals of men not because of modern philosophical ideas, but because they always have been. The issue of women being associated with property is continually dealt with, from Aglaya spurning Ganya for bartering for her, to, of course, Nastassya's fantastic antics with the money thrown about for her.
In terms of Nastassya's theatricality, I rather liked the broadness of her portrayal in the Kurosawa film. Setsuko Hara as Nasu positively looms--brooding and strutting in her cloak like Bela Lugosi. Her facial expressions are so like Lugosi later in the film I wouldn't be surprised if I learned Kurosawa had had her watch Browning's Dracula and said, "This is what I want."
I loved, too, how her opulent apartment where Totsky/Tohata had kept her looks like a green house buried under snow.
Compared to Hollywood of the same period, many Japanese films were extraordinarily feminist, but I wonder if part of the reason audiences were so put off by the film initially were scenes like the final confrontation between Nasu and Ayako where the male leads are positively cowering in the background.
In the book, as Aglaya seemed to be taking over in the second part as the romantic lead, I was disappointed. Nastassya was a person with so much more depth while Aglaya, who might indeed be at heart a perfectly decent person, causes so much damage with her immature waffling and manipulations. But she's so perfectly written--she's so evocative of a real, romantic, sheltered young woman. Kurosawa's somewhat kinder to her in his portrayal--altering the scene where she forces him to genuinely propose marriage to her in front of her family before laughing it off as a joke. Kurosawa has her take the proposal with sincere solemnity. But she still comes off as a girl adoring and idolising the poor idiot until she's faced with the question of actually being emotionally intimate with him, at which point she endeavours to hurt him in small, various ways to secure higher ground for herself.
Aside from Mori, I thought the film was incredibly well cast. It was amazing how well Kurosawa's regulars fit into the characters from the book--Bokuzen Hidari was so perfectly Lebedev, Minoru Chiaki was perfectly Ganya. But the most effective part of the movie, to me, was Toshiro Mifune as Rogozhin/Akama. Mifune's insight into the character was a genuine revelation to me. I'd seen Rogozhin as being somewhat eerily cool, especially as Dostoevsky's portrayal seemed at times supernatural, having him appear like a shade to Hippolite, his huge, strange and sinister house, and his habit of silently following Myshkin. But after Mifune's portrayal of him as an angry young man, coming out of the shadow of his father, trying to stake out his identity in the world by pursuing Nasu, I can't see him any other way.
Which is not to say there's nothing supernatural about him in the Kurosawa film. His eyes are given just as much attention. Mifune's also impossible not to like, which is also perfect.
The movie's filled with Kurosawa's usual ingenious compositions utilising actor blocking. This is one of my favourite compositions in the film;
Nasu and Akama, a yin and yang of pain.