The Idiot

  • Akira Kurosawa
  • Japan  /  1951
  • Japanese
  • 166 min
October 18, 2010 by Matthew Mesaros

It’s probably not unreasonable to say that Kurosawa’s adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot is his most overlooked film. Still fresh from the success of Rashômon film that would make his name internationally and is generally considered the title that opened up Japanese cinema for serious western consideration—Kurosawa switched studios from Daiei to Shôchiku for his next venture, a massive project adapting his favourite novel from his favourite author. The result was a sprawling two-part, nearly four-and-a-half hour long film which proved difficult for test audiences to digest. At the request of the studio Kurosawa tried to whittle away a little more to make it less cumbersome but he could not satisfy his employers. Kurosawa notoriously suggested, if further cuts must be made, that “they better cut it [the film] lengthwise”. The original 266 minute epic was pared down to 166 minutes by the studio. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, and many have searched, including Kurosawa himself, all of the excised 100 minutes are now lost forever and the full scale of his film will never be known.

This leaves us with a most curious product. Although some alterations are made, primarily moving the text from an 18th century Russian summer to a post-WW2 Japanese winter, Kurosawa stays quite faithful to the events of Dostoevsky’s original novel. He also assembled a large cast which proves a veritable who’s who for fans of classic Japanese cinema. From his own regular troupe come the likes of Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki and, to a lesser extent, Masayuki Mori (to name but a few) but we also have a number of Ozu regulars in the mix including Setsuko Hara, Yoshiko Kuga and Chieko Higashiyama. Essentially Kurosawa gathered the cream of Japanese cinema to aid him in realising his project. Unfortunately, for all their best efforts, it’s incredibly difficult to gauge just how successful this adaptation is. For those familiar with the book it should be easy to fill in missing narrative details and to bring a sense of the tome’s atmosphere and spirit but unavoidably, given the film’s harsh treatment at the hands of the studio, what we have here feels like only part of a whole.

While he was still establishing himself as a major leading man in Japanese cinema Toshirô Mifune arguably comes out the best of the bunch here. His presence, volatile as ever, fits perfectly to the arched, operatic tone of his scenes. Elsewhere Setsuko Hara, usually the face that lights up the screen (in Ozu’s films or even in Kurosawa’s earlier No Regrets for Our Youth), this time around brings shadow and menace with her presence. Although not a villain by any stretch she is quintessentially a femme fatale, as deadly to herself as to those who stand with her. Unfortunately her role is disjointed, largely thanks to the extremely heavy editing that dogs the first forty or so minutes of what remains of the feature. Ozu’s other regulars fare better as focus shifts from Hara to Kuga as the primary female. Kuga handles her difficult role with a perfect balance of warmth and venom, her pretty face often belying her strong will. As is to be expected, veteran actress Higashiyama is pitch perfect as Kuga’s mother; always sage and astute but also entirely fallible.

Tying the whole thing together, and posing the biggest challenge of all, is Masayuki Mori’s turn as the eponymous idiot. Recovering from epileptic dementia, the result of a brush with death, he is the figure through which all the other characters function. He is utterly honest, incapable of subterfuge, and for this he will suffer even as he brings out the innermost feelings of those around him. He is entirely incapable of grasping the vicious mind-games and torturous emotional trysts of those that surround him just as he is oblivious to his many social faux pas. Through his unflappable honesty and emotional nakedness he retains his honour while all around him falter. In this most challenging of roles Mori’s performance seems suitably delicate but also heavily predicated on broad gesture. It’s perhaps a strange complaint seeing as Mifune does the same; however where he carries himself perfectly, perhaps Mori simply lacks the charisma to fully assert his conviction. This is not to say that Mori is a bad actor, his career speaks strongly against that, but rather to assert that in the film’s current form the role seems too fraught with problems to be easily carried by even an actor of Mori’s skill and experience.

Though nowhere near as experimental and unusual as his prior film, Rashômon, there’s still a grand sense of theatricality here and a heavy debt to silent cinema. The atmospheric lighting, at times bordering on expressionistic, catches the undersides of faces and objects and fills many sequences with a true sense of dread. Elsewhere soft lighting and near whimsical set-design lend a gossamer-like delicacy to Kameda’s (Mori) dealings with his potential lover, played by Kuga. There certainly is an impressive tonal note sustained throughout the project, even as the edits sometimes pile on so fast as to reduce the narrative to near tatters. It is surely this quality that has lead some to classify the film as one of Kurosawa’s finest. If you can ignore the narrative lapses and unsure progression of the drama then the atmosphere the film evokes may well carry you through for a rapturous good time. Unfortunately for many viewers, this is an extremely difficult thing to ask. The film gets off to a very unsteady start as the bulk of the edits were made in this section. To keep the audience informed we have an array of title cards and on one occasion a voiceover which explain not only events that no longer exist in the film, but statements regarding the inner-workings of some of the characters and also about the original intent of Dostoevsky’s novel. Even for seasoned viewers it’s a provocative lesson about the importance of showing and not telling. Replacing many important actions with terse captions makes it all the more difficult to sync up to the dramatic tension of later proceedings.

Meanwhile Kurosawa’s trademark ‘wipe’ transitions lack their usual dynamism. Their presence here instead suggests that they were hastily inserted afterward to elide over entire sequences and to clumsily jump in and out of important scenes, showing only what was deemed absolutely vital for furthering the storyline. The effect is jarring and unsatisfactory, clearly revealing itself as a tool of the producers rather than of the director. The result is a staccato effect that leaves many of the characters’ later dilemmas feeling hollow and isolated, as if the actors were stuck on an island of self-seriousness in a sea of incidents that were never properly elaborated upon to begin with. Borrowing the title from Ingmar Bergman you could almost call what we have today Scenes from ‘The Idiot’ due to the genuine piecemeal nature of the earlier segments.

What we’re left with is a terribly damaged film, one with all the auspices of a potent drama but none of the foundations which were hacked out to make the film fit a certain duration. It’s perhaps one of the tragedies of cinema history although we are luckier than most as 166 minutes still survive. That’s more than made it from the majority of Japan’s pre-1940s cinema which were lost through an unfortunate combination of negligence and the Second World War. What we’re left with is a tantalising product, filled with isolated gems of acting, of incident and of technique but with an unfortunate lack of the cinematic mortar that should hold it all together. It’s no doubt for the best that Kurosawa stayed faithful to Dostoevsky so his novel might provide a useful blueprint for the adaptation. For fans of Kurosawa, of Dostoevsky and of classic Japanese cinema there’s plenty here to enjoy, but it must be tempered with a reduced expectation owing to the circumstances of its production.

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