The Kurosawa Odyssey
Studio: Shochiku Studios
Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa & Eijiro Hisaita, based on the story by Fryodor Dostoevsky
Cast: Masayuki Mori, Toshiro Mifune, Setsuko Hara, Yoshiko Kuga, Takashi Shimura
Cinematographer: Toshio Ubukata
Music: Fumio Hayasaka
If “Rashomon” comes with a lot of baggage, then “The Idiot” is that mysterious passenger who slips into the coach mostly unseen. It’s wedged in between the movie that made Kurosawa’s career in “Rashomon” and would be followed up by two of the greatest movies of all time: “Ikiru” and “Seven Samurai.” And yet, like “Scandal,” it’s fallen through the cracks of history. Most of the critical analysis of the movie only compares it to the movies that surround it (Michael Koresky’s Criterion essay on the film talks almost as much about “Rashomon” as it does “The Idiot”), or talks more about what the film could have been. I’ll talk about that first to get it out of the way, because I’m more interested in talking about the actual guts and bones of the movie itself.
Kurosawa originally envisioned “The Idiot” as two films, and the runtime of both halves was well over four hours. This was before “Rashomon” hit the stratosphere and the co-writer/director did not have the power he would soon yield, so when a test screening did not go well, executives at Shochiku Studios welded the two halves into a single film and began chopping. I could not find out how much, if any, control Kurosawa had over the final cut, which is two-hours-and-forty-five minutes in length. The second half seems (mostly) intact, but the first half is obviously chopped to bits, with intertitles explaining a LOT of character relationships, motivations and actions. There is even one especially annoying title card that explains what Fryodor Dostoevsky meant when he was writing the original source novel… as opposed to just letting the movie speak for itself. Legend also says that years later when Kurosawa made another movie for the studio he searched for days in their archives to find the missing footage – and couldn’t.
So yes, “The Idiot” is a fragmented mess at the beginning. But I can only analyze what actually made it to screen, and that’s what I’m going to do. 95% of the other critical analysis frames anything written as “It’s Kurosawa’s destroyed masterpiece!” or something similar. But did it really have the makings of a masterpiece? I don’t want to write about what the movie isn’t… I want to talk about what the movie is.
The idiot of the title’s real name is the innocent Kameda (Masayuki Mori), and we open with him just back from the war after almost being shot to death. He meets Akama (Toshiro Mifune), a rich and rogue-ish figure and strikes up a friendship with him. They both end up falling in love with Taeko (Setsuko Hara), a kept woman just escaping her bounds. She doesn’t want to sully Kameda’s innocence, but isn’t really in love with Akama either, so the pendulum swings back and forth. At some point Kameda begins to court a woman named Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga), but all Ayako does is seem to yell at him about either being an idiot or loving Taeko.
Just writing that out, I’m thinking to myself “Gosh, that’s not a lot of plot for an almost three hour movie,” and I can’t imagine what else Kurosawa and his co-screenwriter Eijiro Hisaita threw into the over four hour version. The fragmented opening really makes it difficult to engage with the story until about half an hour in… it took me two or three times to make it past that point anyway. And once you get what’s going on, you find yourself rewinding to watch the opening again to make sure you understand everything.
Cards on the table, even though I have read a few of Dostoevsky’s texts, I have not read the novel upon which “The Idiot” is based. Dostoevsky strikes me as an almost impossible author to adapt, though that hasn’t stopped a ton of filmmakers trying…the old chestnut “Crime and Punishment” in particular. His work is just so internal – so much to do with the inner workings of people’s minds and why they make the choices they make. So a large percentage of “The Idiot” is people talking about the way they feel over and over. How I feel, how you feel, how I feel about the way you feel, and one hell of a lot of talking about how Taeko must feel and why she’s acting like an insane person when making any decisions. To highlight the obsessions of these characters, Kurosawa and Hisaita embrace melodrama.
Let me state here that melodrama doesn’t have to be a bad thing, even though critics have adopted the word as such over the past two decades. “Gone With the Wind” is melodrama. “Titanic” is melodrama. The best sequences in “The Idiot” are pure melodrama, particularly one from the first half where Taeko is essentially being bid upon at her birthday party. Will she remain a kept woman? Over a dozen partygoers watch and follow her every word and movement, and the character makes such a strong impression that it almost (but not quite) makes up for the countless sequences where she isn’t around but other characters talk about her motivations. When Kameda knocks over an expensive vase and people are calling him an idiot, Taeko reminds them that the vases are hers and simply drops the second one. Pretty badass. The sequence climaxes brilliantly, with Taeko taking a bag of a million yen and tossing it in the fire, daring one of her suitors to pull it out while the entire party watches the money burn. So awesome.
Hara gives the best performance in the movie, and by far the best female performance in a Kurosawa film to date. There’s something so electric about her face here… it’s so organic that you really feel her character figuring out things and making decisions right then and there, however crazy they may be. They don’t seem crazy when she is onscreen because Hara is so beautiful, seductive and enigmatic that she could sell the audience on anything. It’s only after she’s gone and the other characters are talking about her that the viewer begins to think “Hey, that doesn’t quite make sense! Like at all!” I’m happy she had a fruitful career with Ozu after this, but just wish she would have made a few more movies with Kurosawa.
Mori is also very good as Kameda, in that you sympathize with him and at the same time kinda want to strangle him. He holds his hands to his jacket collar about 30% too much, though. Mifune is perfectly cast as Akama, and like Mori has a tightrope to walk. Mifune has to be dangerous, but also must allow his friendship with Mori’s character to seem grounded and real… all without any character motivation track laid aside from a lengthy intertitle. That he pulls it off is impressive… that he pulls it off well is most impressive.
Kurosawa and his cinematographer Toshio Ubukata shoot the film for the most part very simply. The big set pieces work because a big deal isn’t made of them…put the camera on the actors and let them do their thing. It’s a marked difference in how Kurosawa approached “Rashomon” and would soon handle “Seven Samurai,” but I feel like Kurosawa was so slavish to “The Idiot” novel that he was intent on letting Dostoevsky’s work be the star, not him. The sets are impressive, as are the frigid outdoor locations chosen because Kurosawa obviously wanted the entire affair to seem Russian without putting it in Russia.
I feel like I’m writing a lot of great things about “The Idiot”… and yet in the end I didn’t like it very much. The parts all work well, but taken as a whole it’s a lopsided emotional mess that makes its point but then can’t help but underlining it for an extra 45 minutes. Most of Kurosawa’s later work is long but rarely feels that way – he gives each film just enough runtime to tell the story he needs to tell and then exits stage left. If it’s three hours, that’s fine. Here I get the impression that “The Idiot” could have made a crackerjack 90 minute movie where Taeko was involved much more than she is in the second half. That way we see the emotions of the main characters instead of hearing about it repeatedly.
If this odyssey has taught me anything about Kurosawa, it’s that the more he adopts a story to his personal style (even if it’s an adaptation), the more successful it can be. He was trying to tell “Stray Dog” in the style of an author and failed, but the movie ended up amazing because it was really Kurosawa’s voice in the void. In trying to be so true to Dostoevsky, he loses himself and why he’s so singular as a storyteller.
-Not crazy about the music of Fumio Hayasaka here. It’s too insistent… to intent on telling you how you should be feeling about any given scene, and up way too high in the mix.
– Takashi Shimura has a small, thankless role here but absolutely kills it. His confession that Kameda owns a farm is instilled with so much more emotion than it should possibly have. What a great actor.