The Idiot – 1951

Director Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay Akira Kurosawa, Eijirō Hisaita based on the novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Starring Setsuko Hara, Yoshiko Kuga, Toshiro Mifune, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Noriko Sengoku, Minoru Chiaki, Eijirō Yanagi

Kurosawa, a tremendous fan of Dostoevsky, made The Idiot as a labor of love. When he presented the film to the studio, the studio balked. What he got back was a crudely edited, 2:46 clunker of a film. The story is one that the Fyodor felt like a troubled masterpiece. The changes made by Akira and his co-writer Hisaita has the same basic premise, only instead of in late 1800’s Russia, it’s now post WWII Japan.

Mori is Kinji Kameda, the idiot of the title. The word has a different connotation in Dostoevsky’s time. In essence he’s a severely traumatized soldier coming back from an asylum to his inheritance back home. He meets Mifune’s Akama, who is heading the same way to meet a girl. Kameda meets that girl, and then another girl. Things never work from anyone after that.

One of the girls, Taeko (Hara) has endured trauma herself. She has been the object of pleasure for a lecherous rich man since she was 14. Now he’s selling her off to a convenient suitor. Kameda arrives on the scene and is able to see into Taeko’s soul through her stare. Taeko refuses the suitor, then walks off with Akama, but also refuses his dowry. The problems have just begun.

Enter another girl, Ayako (Kuga), who is the daughter of Ono (Shimura) who is the caretaker for Kameda. She is also involved with Taeko’s original suitor, Kayama (Chiaki). Kameda messes this up too, just by being honest.

The thing about Kameda, is he is a pure soul. Incapable of lying, he is the one to see both women for who they are. He loves both, but in different ways.

For Taeko, his love is based on sympathy for the trauma she suffers from the old pervert, Tohata (Yanagi), then the ensuing derision she experiences from society afterword. She is emboldened by this to venture off on her own, but this doesn’t work for her or the two men she loves.

Kameda’s love for Ayako is less codependent, but no less strained. The duel love triangles are different, but are increasingly chaotic. This is all due to Kameda’s affect on the women. For the two women who are transfixed by Kameda’s innocent ability to see the truth inside them.

Those who do not listen to him, see him as a joke. When the other men involved see his effect on their betrothed they are amazed, infuriated, then crazed.

Akira, like Fyodor, view Kamada as a purely innocent human man. That vision is never accomplished in Kurosawa’s vision. This is not entirely due to the writer or Mori’s performance. The script is choppy, no doubt due to the editing.

One problem with Kurosawa’s vision is that he makes his pure soul someone who does not believe in God, as compared to Dostoevsky’s completely Christian presence. While it’s the goal of the filmmaker to point out a Christ-like sensibility, it’s tough to do when the person doesn’t really believe.

Mori is not able to consistently put forth the deep resorvoir of thought, intuition and self-awareness. He is astute at showing empathy, but only when the script allows him to get more than a few words out. It often feels that the actor is just on a blank stared ride through the story.

For someone who so obviously values Dostoevsky’s honest vision of humanity, there is little effective evidence of it’s value in his take on The Idiot. It’s ironic that this is the film that is least effective at showing this honest view.

Editing also renders the other performances ridiculously uneven. Taeko and Ayeka love and hate Kamada several times, often within the same scene.

The result is a frustration for any viewer.

The Idiot took me 5 days and a lot of research to make it through. I am still not entirely sure I understood what I experienced. At times I am transfixed, like the conversation when Taeko meets Kayama’s family.

Other times, when Ayako meets Kameda in the park, my mind is blown trying to register what either character is feeling. Ayako moves from derision, to love, to fury and then desperation, all without Kameda uttering a word.

This film doesn’t give the viewer any reason to pursue Dostoevsky’s source material. This is nothing new as Fyodor’s work is hard to translate to film. If anything, one has to assume the Amberson’s like decimation of the original cut of the film must be to blame.

There are other problems, however. The work takes place mostly in snow, with many of the scenes being snowbound. The cinematography is unfortunate many times. The soundtrack rarely matches the mood, and sometimes overwhelms.

As for Mifune, he’s given rein to transform the most of any character in the film. He starts out arrogant, optimistic and friendly. He ends up in a worse state than Kamada.

There is no known full version of this film. If there were, it might take me a year to finish. It would likely be a lot better, though.

(** out of *****)

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