Saturday, January 23, 2010

SPOTLIGHT: The Idiot 白痴, 1951

Fyodor Dostoyevsky is probably my favourite Russian writer, but not for reasons you might expect – I’ve never read Crime and Punishment, and I’ve only seen the 1958 William Shatner film version of The Brothers Karamazov.

But about 20 years ago I stumbled across a slimmer tome (skinnier because he never finished it): Netochka Nezvanova, which basically translates as ‘Nameless Nobody’, ended up as a birthday prezzie for my Mum that I also ended up scouring myself.

For some reason I loved it; probably it was the melodrama and the age I was at the time, and it even shaped the name of the musical project (Little Nobody) that I’ve worked under for 15 years and is a key element in my upcoming novel Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat.

Anyway, I digress.

Apparently Akira Kurosawa also shared a passion for Dostoyevsky, and had wanted to make The Idiot even before he shot Rashomon.

Called Hakuchi in Japanese, here we have the 160-minute tale of Kinji Kameda, told several years after his being unfairly accused of war crimes and reprieved only moments before being shot – an experience which has given him nightmares ever since and a life that is a blank slate of either innocence, goodness or idiocy; the different people he meets here choose one or the other.

We have a main star who isn’t Toshiro Mifune or Takashi Shimura, though both appear here (of course). The focal point is instead actor Masayuki Mori, previously in Kurosawa’s Tora no o fumu otokotachi (The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, 1945) and Rashomon (1950), and who much later starred as Dark Lord Yamikubo in Zatoichi 21: Blind Swordsman's Fire Festival (1970).

It’s all very Dickensian and melodramatic, set in the harsh snows of Hokkaido in northern Japan; while emotional and a shade wrenching, it isn’t what I’d label one of Kurosawa’s better efforts. Mori is fantastic and he does achieve a surprising level of sympathetic depth as Kameda, but his over all performance comes across as a bit mannered.

Better are the powerhouse performances here from the women, namely the great Setsuko Hara (said to be the inspiration for the protagonist of Satoshi Kon’s essential 2001 anime movie Millennium Actress, though in my recent interview with Kon he watered that theory down quite a bit) as the icy former concubine Taeko Nasu, Yoshiko Kuga (the effervescent schoolgirl from Drunken Angel) as Ayako, and Noriko Sengoku in a brief but typically provocative performance.

© 1951 Shochiku Co., Ltd

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