Thursday, January 14, 2010

Kurosawa Centennial: The Idiot

There must be a mysterious film vault somewhere that holds the entire four and a half hour director’s cut of Akira Kurosawa’s troubled adaptation of the classic Dostoyevsky novel, perhaps next to the missing reel of Welles’s Magnificent Ambersons. Kurosawa’s The Idiot was only publically screened once in its entirety before the studio had it cut substantially. While Kurosawa’s original version has yet to be located (though not a lack of looking on the director’s part), in its surviving 166 minute form, it still represents a not inconsequential investment of time and a good value for your ticket buying dollar when it screens during Film Forum’s ambitious twenty-eight film celebration of the Kurosawa Centennial.

It is not right when people call the epileptic Kinji Kameda an idiot, but they do it all the time. An accused WWII war criminal, Kameda was pardoned while facing his firing squad. During that moment, he experienced a combination of shellshock and a transcendental epiphany that have made him meek by all outward appearances, but wise to those who bother to delve deeper. Something about him also touches the brash Denkichi Akama with whom he is travelling to snowy, appropriately Russian-looking Hokkaido after his release from a military asylum.

Kameda hopes to find some sort of home with his only surviving family, a shady uncle who has been taking advantage of him financially. Akama intends to use his recent inheritance to buy the love of Taeko Nasu, an infamous kept woman. When Akama points out her photo in the window of a photography store, Kameda is struck by her eyes, recognizing a kinship of pain within them. Soon two unlikely love triangles overlap, as Kameda and Akama compete to deliver Nasu the fate they each believe she deserves, even while Kameda’s heart is divided between the notorious Nasu and the innocent but unforgiving Ayako.

With nearly two hours whittled out, The Idiot understandably has some rough patches, particularly at the beginning and the end. There is a considerable amount of telling rather showing as a result. However, when it gets going, it temporarily matches some of Kurosawa’s finest work, as when Kameda falls in love (of some kind) with Nasu’s picture. It brings to mind Preminger’s classic Laura, yet Kurosawa stages the scene with more subtly and ambiguity. Frankly, The Idiot probably peaks about a third of the way through with Nasu’s first dramatic appearance in the film. Though she is supposed to accept a marriage arranged by Kameda’s uncle on behalf of her wealthy keeper, she turns the tables, humiliating her humiliators. It is a scene of juicy melodrama that brings to mind the work of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis (particularly her famous line: “Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”)

Though Toshirō Mifune is perfectly cast as the animalistic Akama, The Idiot is probably Kurosawa’s only film with the actor not dominated by his intense screen presence. Instead it is Masayuki Mori’s disconcertingly child-like innocence as Kameda that defines the film. Yet, The Idiot’s strongest characters are its women, particularly the deeply wounded Nasu, played with elegant grace by Setsuko Hara, best known as Yasujiro Ozu’s frequent muse.

It is unfair to pass a final judgment on The Idiot since we cannot screen it as Kurosawa intended. Still, two and three-quarter hours are at least a good taste of Kurosawa’s take on Dostoyevsky. Even if somewhat inconsistent, it is far more entertaining than most new films released during an average year. The Idiot screens Sunday (1/17) as the Kurosawa celebration continues at Film Forum.