Hakuchi (1951)


(director/writer: Akira Kurosawa; screenwriter: from the novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky/Eijirô Hisaita; cinematographer: Toshio Ubukata; editor: Akira Kurosawa; music: Fumio Hayasaka; cast: Toshirô Mifune (Denkichi Akama), Masayuki Mori (Kinji Kameda), Setsuko Hara (Taeko Nasu), Takashi Shimura (Ono, Ayako’s father), Yoshiko Kuga (Ayako), Chieko Higashiyama (Satoko, Ayako’s mother), Chiyoko Fumiya (Noriko, Ayako’s sister), Eijirô Yanagi (Tohata), Minoru Chiaki (Mutsuo Kayama, the secretary), Mitsuyo Akashi (Madame Akama); Runtime: 166; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Takashi Koide; New Yorker Films; 1951-Japan-in Japanese with English subtitles)



“There’s a dreamlike quality to the story and the actors take on a trance-like state that fits the up-and-down emotional states of the volatile characters.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Akira Kurosawa (“Rashomon”/”Ran”/”Throne of Blood”) transfers Fyodor Dostoyevski’s snowbound classic novel with all its chills from St. Petersburg to the snowy clime of modern postwar Hokkaido. The famed Japanese director’s favorite author is faithfully treated in this underrated (failed with both the critics and at the box office) literal adaptation that was much criticized because of the difficulty of following the plodding plot line, being too faithful to the overlong book and that the Shochiku studio ordered Kurosawa to cut it in half from its original 265 minutes–which only added to the confusion. It was released truncated at 166 minutes and in two-parts. One is asked to have lots of patience to stick with all its hysterical wooing scenes and a suspension of disbelief to follow the actions of an idiot that leads to him sweeping two beautiful women off their feet. The idiot hero, Kinji Kameda (Masayuki Mori), playing the Prince Myushkin role from the novel, is viewed as too pure and kind for this world. The rewards are great for sticking with it, as there’s a dreamlike quality to the story and the actors take on a trance-like state that fits the up-and-down emotional states of the volatile characters.

The tale picks up when the epileptic Kameda, who wants to only do good and is viewed as a “holy fool,” is returning home to Hokkaido (frigid northern Sapporo island of Japan) from army service after turning up alive when thought dead. On the train he meets a wealthy merchant’s son Denkichi Akama (Toshiro Mifune), returning home from banishment when his domineering estranged father dies. The simple ways of Kameda make Akama laugh heartily for the first time in ages and the two begin an uneasy relationship. At the home train station they see in a store window a photo of the alluring Taeko Nasu (Setsuko Hara) and Akama can only see her beauty while Kameda sees her sad eyes.

Kameda moves in with Kamaya (Minoru Chiaki), a friend of his deceased father’s and a suitor of his neighbor, the beauty Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga), but since the war left the landlord impoverished he’s set to marry the kept woman Taeko. The elderly Tohata (Eijirô Yanagi) has kept her as his woman of ill-repute ever since the twentysomething was fourteen, but will now pay Yamaka a tidy sum to take her off his hands so he can again appear respectable in society. By his sincerity, Kameda gains the trust of Taeko and she calls off the marriage upon his advice. Akama proposes next and offers Taeko a substantial sum to go with him, but she can’t decide whether to be with the abusive Akama or with Kameda–the most decent man she ever met. In the meantime, the tumultuous Ayako finds herself attracted to Kameda because of his honesty. Ayako’s father Ono (Takashi Shimura), under pressure from his bossy wife (Chieko Higashiyama), fesses up to stealing Kameda’s 125-acre farm left by his father and returns it. The now wealthy idiot loves everyone without any hint of hatred, and tends to bring out the best in people.

After a number of grueling melodramatic moments, that were admittedly hard to take, the conclusion has “the idiot” being forced to choose either Taeko or Ayako as a wife, while a blizzard takes place and a jealous volatile Akama sports a meat knife to help in the decision making process.

Though successful only in spurts as a contemplation on goodness, those spurts are enough.