Contextualization of Idiot: Kurosawa’s Film Adaptation

Saera Yoon, Indiana University

Kurosawa is probably the most renowned authority among Asian auteurs who translated Dostoevsky’s novels into the visual medium. Film critics (most notably, Richie) are largely critical of Kurosawa’s “blind” worship of Dostoevky that, in their opinion, bound the film’s creative potential unrealized. One Slavic critic, Emma P. Marciano, focuses on the treatment of space and suggests that the difference is due to the macro-level cultural traditions of Japan and Russia. My argument is that Kurosawa in essence did change a few focal points of the original novel, rather than following it faithfully, and in this process the film is stranded between the two national contexts. My paper investigates what fundamental changes are introduced by Kurosawa, how they alter the poetics of the original, and at the same time how they fail to create their own context.

His deep admiration for the Russian writer notwithstanding, Kurosawa appears to be unsatisfied (if unconsciously) with certain parts of the novel and seeks concrete “logic” in Dostoevsky’s indefiniteness. Here Kurosawa neglects “motivation” (motivirovka, in Shklovskii’s usage) in prose. While the origin of Myshkin’s illness is not clearly explained, Kurosawa assigns an all too obvious social context (experience of a war-crime convict) to the protagonist’s epilepsy. And Kurosawa’s Myshkin finds empirical explanation in his attraction to Nastas’ia Filippovna: he sees the parallel between her eyes and those of his convict mate who was waiting for execution. This way, he fills in what he deems Dostoevsky’s holes with the Japanese post-war context.

I will further analyze how Kurosawa’s changes directly reflect his understanding of Myshkin. Kurosawa admired Dostoevsky’s sympathy for man’s suffering and he wanted to render exactly that component on his screen. And everything else operates to maximize and dramatize the innocent man’s tragic journey in the materialistic world. In this respect, another significant addition is the reinforced commercialism that heightens the tension between the innocent/pure man and the corrupt world. To take a few examples, the photograph of Nastas’ia Filippovna at a photo studio, in place of a portrait circulating in an intimate circle (Epanchins, Ganya and accidentally Myshkin), points to the commercialism of woman’s beauty (sex) on public display. Also, how Myshkin gets wealthy in the movie is presented in an ugly commercial intrigue with his close relations involved. Given this, Kurosawa’s change in the original’s use of time can be explained. Unlike Dostoevsky’s use of both winter and summer, Kurosawa sticks only to winter and fills the screen with snow all throughout the movie. On the one hand, it symbolizes the protagonist’s innocence (as Kurosawa interprets him) but at the same time, the director renders the treachery of the society by masterfully employing the ambivalence of snow.

Kurosawa’s changes, however, bear a consequence to chastise the original’s rich complexity and irony toward characters. Moreover, the initial expectation of reflecting Japanese context (prompted by the reference to the World War II) is not fulfilled. The utilization of space, in this respect, is telling in that his protagonist moves from one periphery to another in Japan. He fails to relate the film to his own national context, or to the audience outside Japan.