Akira Kurosawa: The Idiot (1951) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
24Aug/120

Akira Kurosawa: The Idiot (1951)

I'm facing a conundrum with The IdiotOn the one hand, it's clear that Akira Kurosawa took a great risk in trying to preserve most of the book in a cinematic forum.  He created an initial cut that ran almost four and a half hours but was forced to edit the film nearly in half.  The studio heads at Shochiku allowed a more reasonable edit from the master but it still didn't test well.

Now, to be fair, we'll never know exactly what Kurosawa had in mind because nearly two hours of film are lost forever.  But then there's the Achilles Heel of Kurosawa's love - he is never more boring than when he is in the position of recreating something he holds in rapturous awe.  I have not read The Idiot so I can't comment to it's faithfulness outside of Kurosawa's well known love of Russian literature and well-documented attempts to make the films as literally translated as possible.

The positive, I've not experienced the cold of a Kurosawa film quite like I do in The Idiot.  Smoke and fog wrap themselves around shadows and terrifying figures of changing dimensions.  This is partly to show how scary the world is to someone like Kinji (Masayuki Mori), a man who was nearly executed for a crime he didn't commit and suffered a complete breakdown.

Those scenes are the best.  Kurosawa takes a break from the nearly endless misery porn and seemingly endless dialogue to show how his sometimes friend, sometimes nemesis, Denkichi (Toshiro Mifune) really feels about Kinji's blissful ignorance.  Kinji is stalked by mist and his paranoia of the death squad he once faced makes him think someone is following him everywhere.  A series of dark figures follow and abruptly leave.  Kinji finally let's himself relax and Denkichi jumps from the dark, knife raised, while Kinji screams and runs into the snow.It's a powerful moment showcasing the very best of Kurosawa in a silent mode.  But, and this is where the film nearly broke me, it came at the end of Part 1 - Love and Agony, where Kinji and Taeko (Setsuko Hara) stare at each other for what feels like thirty goddam minutes and talk about her eyes.  We could sense the insanity eating away at the edges of The Most Beautiful, but what seems like a Kurosawa slam-dunk on paper translates to a painfully boring film.

This is where I'm struggling with exactly how much blame to place on Kurosawa.  He was forced into those disastrous cuts, most prevalent in the first 15 minutes of the film where a new text crawl awaits between every cut to explain the relationships between freshly introduced sets of characters.  I'm not ashamed to admit here that I was really confused Kyle.  I had to chapter back three times so that my notes would at least make some sense of the dowry, the farm, the idiot, and Taeko's penchant for ominous black garb.

But in so many moments Kurosawa's intact film meanders without purpose.  I speak of that endless dinner that comprises most of Part 1, or Kinji repeating nearly the exact same song and dance of courtship in Part 2.  When he let's the silence take over he reaches delicious dark pulp, like the above stalking sequence, or exquisite displays of empathy, such as the lovely moment Kinji and Denkichi indulge an old woman in a shrine.

Then there was that hilarious moment where Denkichi screams at Kinji then pries on him from the narrow view box of the door while strings thunder in violent portent.  Though I don't feel that fresh laughter coming from my belly was intentional.  With a bit of editing could this be the Kurosawa equivalent to Dumb and Dumber?The first part of the film did break me. The first 20 minutes broke me. So completely, in fact, that there was little chance the movie had to recover. Then there's the — and lets be honest, utterly hilarious — dinner scene you mentioned, which I have some things to say about, and after that I was on autopilot until the end.

I agree wholeheartedly that it's tough to place the blame on Kurosawa considering he was essentially forced to release a highlights reel. Very little of the movie makes sense, at least initially, on a thematic level, much less on the level of individual plot details. I actually paused the movie to do some quick hunting for a summary of The Idiot early on to see if alleviating my near constant confusion about who was who and what their deal was (everybody in this movie has some issue, and none of them seem to connect; they all talk in isolated bursts around their own problems — it's like watching a bunch of high schoolers stage a soap opera) would help me shift focus from the plot to the characters. It didn't help.

The inter-titles, and the bizarre single instance of a voice-over — which I assume was converted to a voice-over at the last minute after someone said “please stop using so goddamn many inter-titles” — actually serve to add confusion rather than clarity. I know Kurosawa was trying to import the entire plot and setup of the book, but let it go man. I would have easily held on throughout the first part if I'd had to piece together myself who the characters were and what their relationships are — that could have at least been an interesting version of frustration — but all the background info presented gives the impression that we should already understand this, and then when we don't it's distracting and deflating.It's interesting that you mention Kurosawa functioning the strongest here in silent mode, because my thoughts while watching much of the movie were, “He should have done this as a silent film.” So many of the situations involve classic and simple dramatic setups — there's a love triangle/rectangley thing, which is established almost wordlessly anyway and speaks for itself — that we don't really need all the extra stuff about the dowry, marriage negotiations, and often confusing secondary characters. The actors here convey enough with their faces and Kurosawa's visual arrangement that a handful of very brief text cards here and there would have been sufficient to stage a stripped down, bare and emotionally focused version of the story, and then those later scenes where the images themselves convey such a powerful sense of desolation could carry the weight of the movie. As a silent film, the performance by the actor who plays The Idiot would also have worked substantially better in the early scenes — another thing I want to talk more about.

This may be the tragic flaw on Kurosawa's own part when told he had to so severely truncate the movie: given this ultimatum, he should have pared it down to a brief setup of the relationships between the four main characters, those wonderfully paranoid sequences you mention, and Toshiro Mifune's crazy, crazy eyes. That may not have been an adequate representation of the story, but I think it would have maintained the essential emotional elements and could have resulted in an atmospheric slow-burn into territory characterized by desperation and manipulation — that's a Kurosawa movie I'd watch.

Kyle, for once, I don't have a long-winded response.  Sometimes you have to know when to conserve energy for the real show, and next week is Ikiru.

Any final thoughts?Just two. The casting and acting in this movie are strange, primarily because despite Toshiro Mifune being in full on breakdown mode throughout the last agonizing 2 hours, the “fallen woman” who The Idiot is obsessed with is the only part of the movie I distinctly remember. This is likely because A) she creates what is, considering the material, a legitimately interesting character primarily through fairly minimalist acting during the first few scenes she's around, and then becomes a typical Kurosawa Female for the remaining duration, and B) recalling anything else would have required the movie to feature other characters that were developed clearly enough to be memorable.

Secondly, I think my primary issue with the movie as it exists goes beyond the studio-compelled butchering of the plot to the performance of the actor playing The Idiot, who looks like an early version of Gollum combined with an anemic Bela Lugosi, and who is so hilariously clueless that the movie seems like a farce of itself about 80% of the time. He resembles not someone scarred by war and reduced to his most basic human elements—which is I think how Kurosawa wants him to come off—so much as an unhinged man-child incapable of understanding even the most basic of social conventions pertaining to his or anyone else's situation. This makes it tough to root for the guy, as he is played more or less as a pawn in a game being played by other characters who are too boring to play games, leaving us essentially with a collection of scenes of a weird guy staring awkwardly at other people.

This is what I took from the movie. Next week is Ikiru, which based on the one time I saw it long ago I have complicated feelings about — hopefully I will come away from that with a more full, well rounded impression than simply that it was about a catfish playing a businessman with cancer.

Next week: Andrew and Kyle watch Ikiru,

Posted by Andrew

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