Akira Kurosawa was a Shakespeare fan and a Dostoevsky fanboy. The former is evident from his free adaptations of Macbeth and King Lear that are massively cinematic and complete. Kurosawa had a different relationship with Dostoevsky. He was reluctant to change or leave out anything, and the result is an incomplete movie that demonstrates that a great novel doesn’t necessarily make a great movie.
I’ll be upfront that my knowledge of Dostoevsky is limited to Crime and Punishment, and I haven’t read The Idiot, so I’m relying on others that say that Kurosawa’s adaptation is very literal. Feel free to correct me in the comments if I’m wrong. I have more familiarity with Harlan Ellison’s “Prince Myshkin, and Hold the Relish”. Perhaps that’s an advantage as I have no preconceived notions of what the adaptation should be.
With that disclaimer out of the way, it’s worth noting that you don’t need to be a Dostoevsky expert to note that Kurosawa’s film is massively incomplete. Kurosawa had turned in a film with an expected run time of around 4 ½ hours, a true epic in the vein of Gone With the Wind. But the studio would have none of it and nearly 100 minutes was chopped from The Idiot which is immediately obvious. Whole subplots disappear, Takashi Shimura seems to have most of his work on the cutting room floor, and chunks of the story at the beginning are filled in with narration and blocks of text on screen. It’s clumsy, it’s disorienting, and it’s no way to start or continue a movie.
The story starts with Akama (Toshiro Mifune) returning from the war on a crowded train. Akama’s startled by the scream of Kameda (Masayuki Mori) waking from a nightmare. Kameda then relates his story of how he was sentenced to death by mistake as a war criminal, thought he was going to die, and then got a last minute reprieve. Kameda’s now reduced to being not much more than an idiot, subject to epileptic fits. But, Kameda’s changed by his experiences in more ways than one and has vowed to treat everyone with love, respect, and kindness.
Akama and Kameda quickly become friends. They’re both headed to Hokkaido, northern Japan bordering Russia which is all the better to recreate a Russian –style winter. While on the way, Akama confides in Kameda about his love for Taeko Nasu (Setsuko Hara). Kameda falls for her also as he views her picture. Through use of reflection, Kurosawa visually creates the love triangle that’s forming.
Fine movies have been made around a love triangle alone, but since The Idiot is based upon a Russian novel the complications are only just beginning.
We’re also introduced to the Ono family who are relatives of Kameda. The father (Takashi Shimura) has a secret that he’s holding a farm that rightfully belongs to Kameda, but came to him when Kameda was thought dead. The mother, Satoko (Chieko Higashiyama), is fully encouraging Shimura to hold on to the farm. The elder daughter, Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga), is standoffish but being courted by Kayama (Minoru Chiaki). But Kayama is about to become engaged to Taeko Nasu in exchange for a big dowry. Taeko’s been a kept woman by Tohata (Eijiro Yanagi), but now Tohata needs to become respectable. And Kayama has his own extended family who comments on the events, including Kurosawa regular Noriko Sengoku. And the plan is for Kameda to stay with Kayama.
Got all that? What started as a fairly straightforward triangle is now a complicated mix of love triangles, family secrets, and politics. There are enough complex relationships to fill a sizable novel and the ability for film to deal with those complications, provide depth and nuance, and propel a plot forward is a challenge under ideal circumstances for the best of directors. Usually everything but plot tends to get sacrificed and that’s true to an extent with The Idiot.
At this point, Kameda is dropped into the domestic situation without comprehending what exactly is going on. He even blissfully and comically relays love notes with no clue as to what they signify. During this time, Kameda and Ayako start to bond, both feeling like outsiders to the machinations going on.
There’s a lot of family politics in this section, including a sequence where Taeko meets Kayama’s family which doesn’t go well. Akama shows up at this point, offering Kayama 600,000 yen and then bidding up the amount to 1,000,000 yen to give up his claim on Taeko, which serves to further exasperate the situation. And, Kurosawa uses more triangles in his composition.
To drive the point home further, Kurosawa ends the meeting with Kameda trying to comfort Taeko, who must be feeling like a piece of meat, with a single tear and a few words. It’s not subtle on Kurosawa’s part, but it feels like the right choice.
This section culminates with a birthday / engagement party where Kameda has been invited. This is one of the big set pieces of the movie and Kurosawa goes all out. The costumes all look sharp. You constantly see snow in the background, which both figures into the characters emotions and the setting. Kurosawa audaciously uses wipe cuts within the same scene. And as the conversations / confrontations mount Kurosawa expertly manages the crowd while keeping it focused on the main characters. If there’s a scene that sums up Kurosawa’s intentions for The Idiot, this is it.
The scene has the first dramatic payoffs of the film. Kameda relays his experiences during the war, earning the sympathy of everyone around him. Taeko asks Kameda for advice, trusting the well meaning innocent to cut through all the crap and Kameda advises her to reject Kayama. Taeko rejects Tohata too, cutting herself off from all support. Akama arrives at this point with his 1,000,000 yen. And Kameda tells Taeko, while she’s literally surrounded by suitors on all sides, that he would take her in as she is, accepting her for what she is. Not a fantasy. Not a thing to be bought and sold. Simply as a person. At first Kameda is mocked, but ultimately everyone sees that Kameda is pure in his intentions.
This is the action that propels most of the remainder of the movie. How can someone who is not pure, like Taeko, accept that offer of pure love and devotion from someone so innocent? How can Taeko turn it down?
Sure there’s the question of how Kameda could possibly support her, which is answered when Ono steps up and announces that he’s holding a farm that belongs to Kameda. This illustrates a problem with the larger story as Ono’s moment of redemption is rendered null by his absence from the film up to this point and he has no subsequent role in the film.
Setsuko Hara was Ozu’s leading actress and she’s everything you’d want in the role. She’s beautiful, yet conflicted and every emotion and thought can be read on her face. She only worked with Kurosawa a few times and every time it’s a standout performance. She’s the best actor in the film. Mifune and Mori are fine as her suitors, Mori is often affecting, but both are much less fully developed than Hara and the picture suffers when she’s not on screen.
Ultimately, Taeko can’t accept. She tosses Akama’s million yen bundle in the fire and challenges Kayama to pick it out. In his moment of redemption, he refuses. Ultimately Taeko leaves with Akama, but Akama rightly suspects that she’d rather leave with Kameda.
The fact that Akama realizes that he’s in a triangle, but that Kameda is too innocent to act against is a poison to their relationship. Akama wants to be friends, but realizes that Kameda is his rival. A rival he can’t best in terms of innocence and well meaning. At one point, Akama stalks Kameda through the snow with murder on his mind, but ultimately can’t go through with it.
The plot takes another turn as Kameda begins a tentative courtship with Ayako, albeit Taeko and Akama are never out of the picture for long. And Kurosawa gets to stage this progress amidst some terrific set pieces like a winter skating performance while “Night on Bald Mountain” plays on the soundtrack.
With a few turns and complications, Ayako and Kameda move towards an engagement. But Taeko’s hold on Kameda weighs on Ayako and she demands a meeting. After a testy back and forth, Taeko demands that Kameda choose between Ayako and herself.
That’s the crux of the film. How can a man who loves all possibly choose? Why force him to instead of just accepting his love? It’s an impossible contradiction to solve, but the result satisfies nobody and leads to destruction.
I’ve greatly simplified the plot of the film, but not the actual substance. Kurosawa didn’t simplify the plot at all and allowed it to ramble beyond any sort of commercial length due to his worship of Dostoevsky. If Kurosawa had some distance from the material, perhaps he could have shaped it to something more cinematic. Instead, there are individual scenes that work, but plots and subplots that pad the runtime and don’t illuminate the themes and ideas dominate. Kurosawa wanted to translate -instead of adapt - the novel and ultimately the medium of film isn’t as accommodating to the material as the prose novel.
The ingredients of a truly great film are certainly present in The Idiot as there are a handful of great scenes. The lost 4 ½ hour cut might be one of the great tragedies of cinema. But the final cut is obviously flawed and missing connective tissue. Supporting characters fulfill their plot role and then disappear and the story doesn’t flow and build momentum.
The final result isn’t necessarily a bad film, but all the flaws are readily apparent. Nobody is going to be entirely satisfied viewing The Idiot. And the reviews were savage. Kurosawa was angry with the studio for cutting the material, but ultimately wasn’t disappointed in the attempt.
Still, it wouldn’t take long for Kurosawa to bounce back. Rashomon had become an international sensation and his next film was equally high-minded. Perhaps in response to the cuts to The Idiot, Kurosawa’s next film featured Takashi Shimura front and center. The result is Shimura’s most celebrated role and one of Kurosawa’s most celebrated films.
Next Time: IKIRU (1952)