1950s, 3/4, Akira Kurosawa, Drama, Review

The Idiot

#19 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.

Akira Kurosawa followed up his international success of Rashomon by going serious literary adaptation with an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Transposing the action from Tsarist Russia to postwar Japan (including the first explicit mention of the US occupation in a Kurosawa film), Kurosawa set out to make a two-part, over four-hour long film that the studio, Shochiku, suddenly got cold feet about releasing at such length. Given the ultimatum of cutting the film down to less than three hours, he decided to cut it “lengthwise”, pulling 80-minutes from the film and bringing it down to 166-minutes. The opening seems to suffer most from these cuts, but scenes often feel unnaturally cut up to bring down the running time, getting us from the beginning of the story to the end mostly intact.

The story follows Kinji Kameda (Masayuki Mori), a former prisoner of war who was convicted of war crimes by the US occupational force and sentenced to death but relieved of his sentence at the last moment, the stress of which broke him, disassociating him from his former self and turning him into a simpleton, the titular idiot. On his train back to his home town of Sapporo, he meets Denkichi Akama (Toshiro Mifune), the final son of an old and wealthy Sapporo family. Kameda disarms the normally angry and impulsive Akama with his simplicity. They descend the train and come across the picture of Taeko Nasu (Setsuko Hara) in a photography studio’s window. She’s the mistress of a wealthy man who has decided to give her away with a 600,000 yen dowry to another man. Kameda goes to the house of his cousin Ono (Takashi Shimura) who has defrauded Kameda of his 125-acre farm and is also the father of the attractive and strong-willed Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga). They host Mutsuo Kayama (Minoru Chiaki) who is the one offered the money to marry Taeko who also has a previous relationship with Ayako.

If there’s a section of this film that outright suffers from the cuts it’s the first 12 minutes or so. We get very discordant jump cuts from one scene to the next, walls of text to outline who is what, and even voiceover. It’s honestly hard to watch. This section has been cut down to ribbons, and it’s incomprehensible. However, by the end of it, when Kayama gives Kameda a letter to give to Ayako, things begin to feel more natural. This relationship between Ayako and Kayama never really gets explained or fleshed out (I presume it was a large victim in the cuts), but it gets the pieces moving, in particular Kameda’s innocence and Kayama’s reticence about taking the offer to marry Taeko.

The highlight of the film is Taeko’s birthday party. Parts of this got cut out here and there, particularly near the beginning and the end, but the meat of it is simply amazing. It’s probably the single greatest sequence in Kurosawa’s entire body of work, and it’s mostly just people talking. Kameda isn’t the only one with some level of concern about the match between him and Taeko. Taeko herself feels trapped, and it takes the simple innocence of Kameda to look through her reputation as a kept woman to see the pain she feels underneath. He recalls the story of his near execution, brought on by his recognition of how Taeko’s eyes remind him of the eyes of a man he saw executed, eyes that had said to him at the time that the 20-year-old had been suffering alone for so long. This meeting of souls is wildly compelling and visually sophisticated with Kurosawa using the full three dimensions of the frame to create interesting compositions without feeling repetitive in ways that William Wyler did so frequently in films like The Little Foxes. It gets cut short about the time Akama shows up with 1,000,000 yen to offer Kayama for Taeko, but Taeko refuses them both and decides to run away with Kameda. This is the sort of long, intricate scene that feels very at home in Russian literature, and Kurosawa makes it wildly compelling in the context of Japanese film.

Then it feels like there’s a whole section missing because we get a quick dialogue driven recap of the next few months where Taeko left Kameda to go with Akama, stuff that feels like it would have been filmed (I could be wrong). This second half of the film ends up handsome (the visual sophistication never diminishes, the acting is never less than very good, and the individual scenes are never less than interesting), but it seems to simply recapture some of the base issues with the original novel (I have since started reading the novel and am only about a fifth of the way through it). Kameda is ultimately not that interesting of a character. He’s a simpleton with little in the way of agency other than a near passive desire to be good and help people, but he doesn’t seem to actually drive anything. He becomes a pawn between Taeko, Akama, and Ayako.

Taeko won’t marry Akama until Kameda is happily married, and she chooses to manipulate Ayako into marrying the simple Kameda, a prospect she’s not entirely against because she admires his simple form of love. The idea is that Taeko loves Kameda but cannot be with him because their being together would ruin him. At the same time, the relationship between Taeko and Akama is really toxic to the point where Akama beat her “black and blue” one night. Everything comes together around the Sapporo Ice Festival (the whole movie is filmed in winter, a marked contrast to the tangible sweltering heat of Stray Dog). Akama and Kameda end up playing second fiddle to the rivalry between Taeko and Ayako, a rivalry born from Ayako’s negative opinion of Taeko in general and the fact that Kameda seems to love them both.

Kameda’s love is a completely selfless one to the point where he has no concerns for his own wellbeing. He only wishes to make both women happy, caught between them and willing to do what each of them demand of him. When Taeko jealously and maliciously demands that Kameda leave Ayako in front of her, Kameda does it, ruining everything. And this scene is kind of the centrality of my issues with how the story plays out. Because Kameda is so simple and borderline passive, merely going wherever he’s led, the film’s tragedy never feels like his. The tragedy is both Taeko’s and Ayako’s, unable to simply accept happiness where they can find it, in Kameda himself. Dostoevsky and Kurosawa had created an ideal of a man, a passive, weak, and pure man who wants nothing for himself, and because he wants nothing for himself he ends up kind of an uninteresting central character. I can see how Dostoevsky would later go on to say that he admired the intent of his book but not the execution (I’ve been meaning to read the original novel for a while, and I think this viewing of the adaptation is going to spur that to actually happen).

That being said, despite my issues with the narrative completion, there’s still a lot to recommend in the film. Even though the movie is mostly just people talking in rooms, it’s often visually sophisticated and interesting with amazing depth of field and composition. Performances are generally great, especially Mifune as a secondary character, Hara as a pained, spurned, conflicted, and vengeful woman, and Kuga as the younger but equally strong-willed contrast to Hara’s more mature character. This probably would have been a stronger film, especially in the beginning, in the longer form, but the basic passiveness of the central character can only be overcome so far. Still, that birthday party scene is amazingly compelling and really, honestly, one of the best single sequences Kurosawa ever put to film.

Rating: 3/4

5 thoughts on “The Idiot”

  1. In general, I believe you should hire a director and then leave him alone. If you don’t trust him, don’t hire him.

    It breaks my heart to watch this movie, to see how dismembered it is. One thing I really admire about Kurosawa was that he was truly a global director. He would take inspiration from stories from England, Russian, America and bring them to Japan, filter them through Japanese history and sensibility. And he would remake them and make them great.

    All that praise aside…I sorta hate the ‘holy idiot’ story. Yes, I know that’s literally Dostoevsky’s story but…I grew to hate Forrest Gump and I’m not super fond of ‘Being There’, though both films have their moments. And don’t get me started on the lesser versions from Rain Man to Simple Jack and so on and on and on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The introduction to the translation I’m reading makes it pretty clear that Dostoevsky really put himself out there with something really different in basing a story around Prince Myschkin. Even he ended up thinking that the book wasn’t really successful, largely agreeing with contemporary critics. His effort to create a purely Christ-like man ends up failing in his own eyes.

      I think Kurosawa captures the book quite well, but it seems like the assumptions of the book just came over in the translation to the film. I’m looking forward to getting past the birthday party in the book to see how much really got cut. If the book plays out like the film (which I have no reason to think it won’t), I can imagine my critique of the later parts of the film applying to the book as well but without Kurosawa’s eye and Mifune’s acting to help.

      Liked by 1 person

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