Dostoevsky in Hokkaido

The Idiot (Hakuchi, 1951), Kurosawa’s adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot (1868-69), opens with a snowy, murky image of the smokestack of a steamer on its way to Hokkaido. According to the script, this is a ferry taking passengers from Aomori to Hakodate on a December night of one of the postwar years which could be placed anywhere between 1945 and 1951. Within seconds the image is invaded by the sound of a foghorn and swallowed up by clouds of steam. The next shot is a close-up of an ice-covered porthole with worn shoes stuck on the sill – a telling detail of the harsh and shoddy conditions of postwar transportation. The camera meanders slowly downstairs, tracking the angled bars of a banister through which one glimpses a crowd of sleeping passengers spread across the floor of the lower deck. The sudden glimpse of a chaotic mass of prone and prostrate bodies cannot but evoke memories of war: dead bodies left on a battlefield, wounded bodies in a hospital at a military camp, or bodies numb with fear, cowering in bomb shelters. In 1951, an overcrowded underdeck would have vividly reminded viewers of the frantic escape of Japanese settlers from China and other colonial territories in anticipation of the allied armies’ arrival. The overcrowded trains of the South Manchuria Railway and ferry transports from Dalian to Japan stayed embedded in cultural memory as desperately chaotic passageways to survival. 

If Kurosawa’s The Idiot is a working-through of Japan’s psychological burden of war crimes in the Asia Pacific and Second World War, why did Kurosawa choose to allegorize this burden through adapting Dostoevsky’s nineteenth-century melodramatic plot of love triangles, romantic rivalries, and crime of passion? When interviewed about the film for Kinema jumpo in 1952, Kurosawa was asked by the critic Chiyota Shimizu, “What in Dostoevsky draws your admiration?” Kurosawa responded as follows:

I’m terribly into Dostoevsky. I read him a lot, I also read criticism about Dostoevsky, and I can pull many things out of him, including many philosophies. But I’m interpreting him very simply. In other words, I don’t think there is anybody else who has something so kind and so favorable about him. What would you call it? He transcends the limitations of ordinary human beings. What I mean by this [is], when we say something is kind, for example, when you see something very pitiful or pathetic, you feel [a] kind of kindness that makes you turn your eyes away. But he wouldn’t look away from it. He would go ahead and look at it, and he would suffer along. On that point, I think he has this nature that is not human but god-like (kamisama).

Dostoevsky was indeed famous for his explorations of the psychology of crime and for the invention of the new form of the “polyphonic” novel, which opened new ways of “going ahead” and “looking at” the most excruciating forms of suffering and abjection. When talking about his film in 1952 Kurosawa observed that “today the world that is Dostoevskyesque is exhausting for people,” and in this sense the film’s lukewarm reception and commercial failure were for him no surprise. And nevertheless, in response to the question whether he considered his film a success, Kurosawa said that “if anybody asked which of [his] works he liked the best, there is no other film that he put his whole heart and soul into, and in this sense [he] likes it.” 

It is plausible that a director seeking to explore the suffering of crime and punishment would turn to Dostoevsky’s existential insights to “transcend the limitations of ordinary human beings” in postwar Japan. Kurosawa’s public faced the extraordinary challenges of coping with defeat and foreign occupation together with the moral dilemma of remembering their dead despite the revealed atrocities committed by the Japanese army. At the same time, the Japanese film industry had to deal with the American censorship on the sympathetic representation of war criminals, prisoners of war, or even military personal and war activities in general, as well as on all types of anti-social behavior, criticism of religion, or mentions of atom bombings, that is all topics in which Kurosawa’s film abounds in a disguise of the cinematic adaptation of a nineteenth-century Russian classic. But the question “Why Dostoevsky?” is far from exhausted by these overt circumstances. Setting aside Kurosawa’s confessed indebtedness to Dostoevsky’s famous psychologism and moralism, it is worth inquiring into the philosophical attitudes in which Kurosawa was so emotionally and personally invested and which he strove, in his own words, “to pull out of” this Russian author.

Kurosawa’s postwar interest in Dostoevsky is integral to the director’s pursuit of non-linear, but spatially and iconographically condensed historicity, which loops between cause and effect and yields a meaning by making several historical planes meet within a shot, or a sequence of shots, and signify simultaneously. In the post-World War II context, such historical reflection had a strong ethically and socially self-reflexive force, and Dostoevsky offered the most obvious discursive vehicle for it. In the words of the literary scholar Caryl Emerson, Mikhail Bakhtin’s understanding of Dostoevsky changed after the war: “The 1929 original is a monograph on Dostoevsky the novelist; in the 1963 revision Bakhtin sees Dostoevsky as a sort of metaphysical threshold, a watershed in novelistic consciousness.” In Bakhtin’s words, quoted by Emerson: “No heroes of Russian literature prior to Dostoevsky had tasted from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” This ethical consciousness made him in the postwar period a critical Other to the Western modernity represented by the literature of consciousness inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche.

Kurosawa’s postwar interest in Dostoevsky was shared with many artists and intellectuals of the industrial nations which participated in World War II. When, in 1951, Kurosawa adapts Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, transposing the novel from the Russian imperial capitals of St Petersburg and Moscow in the late 1860s to the postwar reconstruction period in Japan’s oldest colonial territory of Hokkaido, he joins his efforts to those of such European contemporaries as Thomas Mann, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Mikhail Bakhtin. Each of them represented the consciences of their respective cultures searching for the deeper causes of the catastrophe of the world war, and experimented with possibilities for the rehabilitation and renewal of ideologically compromised cultural traditions through alternative forms of discourse, the new potentiality of which they rediscovered in Dostoevsky.

In his 1946 essay “Dostojevskij— mit Maßen” (“Dostoevsky – Within Limits”), Thomas Mann confessed that his own renewed interest in Dostoevsky was spurred by the experience of World War II. His postwar novel Doctor Faustus(1948) dealing with German culture’s involvement with fascism was indeed strongly influenced by Dostoevsky’s sensibility—what Bakhtin would call his dialogism and carnivalesque style. Pasolini based his social and cultural stance, intended to provoke and shake the Italian postwar establishment, upon Dostoevsky’s model of scandal. And after the war and not without awareness of Thomas Mann, Bakhtin started expanding his earlier theory of dialogism, developed through the analysis of Dostoevsky’s works, into a critique of totalitarian forms of discourse. 

In disappointed opposition to the now-discredited father of Western modernism, Friedrich Nietzsche, all these intellectuals sought an alternative modernity, one which would be less indifferent to social concerns, less solipsistic and more open to the presence of the Other, and above all, ethically motivated and differentiated so as to be able to resist the monolithic usurpation of political space and intellectual discourse by one single state-endorsed ideology. Thomas Mann’s essay is especially revealing for understanding the motives of Kurosawa’s congenial engagement with the postwar Dostoevsky who was received as a critic and an alternative to Western modernity.

Mann was the first to differentiate between Dostoevsky’s and Nietzsche’s concepts of modern temporality in explicitly ethical terms. He pointed out that both thinkers were associated with such notions of time as an “ecstatic, time-transcending moment” and the “eternal return,” which came to inform modernist representations of circularity of time and consciousness. But their understanding of these notions was also marked by an important difference, which Mann saw reflected in the structures of their characteristic diseases: Whereas Nietzsche’s “ecstatic moment” constitutes a climactic point in a linear, wave-like progression of the vital sensation of force and happiness, but ends up in an ultimate collapse from syphilitic paralysis, Dostoevsky’s “ecstatic moment” preceding an epileptic fit is not the end point of a mental journey. The epileptic always regains his consciousness which in Dostoevsky’s representation is always accompanied by a sense of guilt.

Similarly, whereas Nietzsche defines the idea of eternal return as absolute wisdom, the only human response to which can be amor fati, Dostoevsky ironizes this idea of time by ascribing such wisdom to the devil who in his conversation with Ivan Karamazov refers to temporality so conceived as the “most obscene boredom.” Even if in Dostoevsky the ecstatic moment before the epileptic fit always returns, it also opens a venue for self-reflection and implies a possibility of a renewal. Mann describes the structure of consciousness in Dostoevsky as one of death and resurrection, fall and ascent, as it yields a posthumous reflection, differentiation, critical distance from the self, and hence, responsibility. 

Dostoevsky’s is not an optimistic, linear, forward-looking notion of time but the backwards-oriented temporality of an ethically alarmed consciousness, that is of bad and good conscience. Its moral torment renders it exceptional in the modernist tradition of literature. Prince Myshkin’s famous reflections on the epileptic condition illustrate precisely this dialogical self-questioning and self-conscious variation on Nietzsche’s Dionysian theme. The Russian writer displaces Nietzschean transcendence through dialogization and intensification of consciousness and situates it within the discursive sphere of immanence so that any moment of transcendence loops back to social reality and the full presence of conscience. Thus, Dostoevsky offers an epistemological strategy which looks for knowledge not beyond the human being but within it, as well as a psychological tool for coming to terms with forces which are undeniably stronger than individual volition, such as the biological forces of disease or social forces of collective history. Instead of embracing destruction in amor fati, Dostoevsky insisted on the individual dignity of perhaps futile but stubbornly conscious resistance to destiny.

In his time Nietzsche proclaimed to the world: “I have liberated you from a helping and pitiful God: The Cosmos is no more than an inflexible machine; beware of its wheels, that they do not crush you.” Dostoevsky’s hubris was of another form, that of Christianity, which claimed the possibility of dignity through humility, of ethics vis-à-vis unspeakable criminality, of regeneration amidst utter collapse. But ultimately, Dostoevsky’s faith was not in a transcendent God but in the god-like power of human conscience. 

With World War II, Nietzsche’s ominous warning to a humanity liberated from the “pitiful” notions of “good” and “evil” came true: mankind found itself indeed crushed under the wheels of militarized conflict. A major testimony to this crushed postwar condition was the Nichiei film company’s documentary The Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, shot in September-October 1945 and supervised by the Americans in the postproduction stage. With strange appropriateness, the film synchs its opening scenes of the arrival of filmmakers and scientists at the atomic ruins of Hiroshima with the music from Richard Strauss’ modernist tone poem Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1896) based on Nietzsche’s eponymous work. The logical connection thus insinuated between the culture of Western modernism inspired by the philosopher and its ultimate collapse in the World War II can stand for the self-reflexive stance of many postwar intellectuals and artists around the world on the moral bankruptcy of the Western tradition. 

The film scholar Abé Mark Nornes observed that The Effects of the Atomic Bomb’s detached, dehumanized point of view reflects the point of view of the bomb itself. The enunciation of this film, Nornes argues, comes from “an imaginary point: the Epicenter. The Hypocenter. The Ground Zero. Anything straying from the sphere of this powerful point became meaningless and unseen.” Such a point of view, it might be said, characterizes an “inflexible machine,” representing the Nietzschean cosmos, indifferent to human suffering or judgments of good and evil. Under such conditions, Dostoevsky’s modernist insights into the workings of the traumatized psyche, firmly remaining within the ethical premises of humanism, appeared as an alternative.

Kurosawa turned to Dostoevsky as a vehicle through which he could face up to the traumatic consequences and criminal legacy of militarism. In Akira Kurosawa and Intertextual Cinema, James Goodwin writes that Kurosawa explained his enduring interest in Dostoevsky with a direct analogy between “the novelist’s era, with social oppression and the destruction of truth under the tsars” and “the epoch of Japan’s imperial expansion in Asia and the Pacific, during which [Kurosawa] matured as an individual and an artist.” Kurosawa’s understanding of Dostoevsky through the writer’s oppressive historical context reveals that Kurosawa associated the writer with the revolutionary tradition of social criticism characteristic of the Russian-inflected democratic dissent. This profile, however incomplete, accords with the reception of Dostoevsky in Japan, long limited to the translation of the first part of Crime and Punishment and The Insulted and Downtrodden, two novels which critically depict social injustice. 

Dostoevsky’s criticism of statist Orthodoxy, his narodnik sympathies with the simple folk, and his introduction in Japan as an advocate for the downtrodden justified a reception emphasizing his democratic leanings. But his untimely discovery of the psychology of trauma and his dark discernment of the totalitarian future to come made him much less congenial to the social movements in pre-war Japan than Tolstoy, Turgenev, Gorky, or Chekhov. Dostoevsky’s existentialism and ethics became much more topical and appealing in Japan and around the world after World War II, when the writer’s near-death experience of the mock execution and Siberian labor camps became a collective experience. Kurosawa foregrounds precisely this new relevance of Dostoevsky by making the epilepsy of his protagonist Kameda a direct result of his war trauma. Dostoevsky’s personal ailment and experience of near execution offer an existential prism which allows Kurosawa to transform a philosophy “pulled out of” the nineteenth-century Russian criminal melodrama into an allegory of Japanese recovery from the horrors of the war. 

In this enterprise, Kurosawa was not alone. For example, the prominent Japanese critic Ara Masahito made precisely this use of Dostoevsky in his contribution to the postwar debate on literature and politics, entitled “Second Youth.” Meaningfully, he opens his piece with an observation that Dostoevsky’s unique near-death experience (the event also at the core of The Idiot), which he used to envy “from a counterintuitive romantic adoration of the abyss of life” is now shared by all Japanese: “But what we now know after the lesson of defeat is not the least bit inferior to the experience of that great nineteenth-century Russian author.” Starting from this premise and through his discussion of Dostoevsky’s works, Ara participates in the soul-searching of his generation of intellectuals and reflects on the possibility of new humanism and rebirth. In Kurosawa’s hands, as in those of Thomas Mann before him, Dostoevsky’s cultivation of subjective ethically differentiated introspection becomes an allegorical medium of historical retrospection.