Bokuzen HidariMinoru ChiakiToshiro MifuneEiko Miyoshi
The Idiot
Medium: film
Year: 1951
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writer: Akira Kurosawa, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Eijiro Hisaita
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Keywords: The Idiot
Actor: Setsuko Hara, Masayuki Mori, Toshiro Mifune, Yoshiko Kuga, Takashi Shimura, Chieko Higashiyama, Eijiro Yanagi, Minoru Chiaki, Noriko Sengoku, Kokuten Kodo, Bokuzen Hidari, Eiko Miyoshi, Chiyoko Fumiya, Mitsuyo Akashi, Daisuke Inoue
Format: 166 minutes
Website category: Japanese old
Review date: 16 November 2011
Well, that was a mistake. Here's where I brand myself a Philistine.
It's Akira Kurosawa's adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Idiot, but I didn't like it. I didn't care. I didn't hate the characters, but equally I took little interest in what was happening to them. Eventually it was a struggle even to keep paying attention.
There are two possible reasons for this, (a) the standard critical one and (b) mine.
Firstly, some conventional wisdom. Japanese film scholar Donald Richie called this film a failure and by and large, this opinion seems fairly popular. Even Kurosawa was unhappy with the movie as released, since his original two-part 265-minute cut had been slashed to ribbons at the request of the studio, Shochiku. They didn't even like the 166-minute version, saying that was also too long, but Kurosawa responded by suggesting they cut it lengthwise. Forty years later he returned to Shochiku to make Rhapsody in August and scoured their archives for his original cut of The Idiot, but without luck. There's a Kurosawa quote that you'll see everywhere, but I'll repeat it here too:
"Of all my films, people wrote to me most about this one... I had wanted to make The Idiot long before Rashomon. Since I was little I've liked Russian literature, but I find that I like Dostoevsky the best and had long thought that this book would make a wonderful film. He is still my favourite author, and he is the one - I still think - who writes most honestly about human existence."
It's certainly clear that the surviving film had been cut down from a very different original. There's info-dumping near the beginning, courtesy of voice-overs and intertitles. The film's still split into two halves, each with its own title card. Furthermore it's still by far the longest of the many movie versions of The Idiot and yet it's generally said to have been cut so ferociously that at times it's close to incoherent.
So that's Kurosawa's point of view. Others think he loved Dostoevsky too much. I haven't read the book myself, but it's been said that it's too literal an adaptation and that ironically he captured Dostoevsky's spirit better the following year in Ikiru, which isn't adapting anything. (Ikiru might be the best movie I've ever seen.) In fairness though, as far as I can tell the novel's fans tend to be much more positive about this movie. It's faithful enough that they can fill in the gaps for themselves. After all, Kurosawa cast some of the best actors in Japan and adored his source material.
My viewpoint is that it's too Russian.
I have a problem with Russian literature. I'm sure I could shatter my stereotypes by getting better versed in it, but to date I've got the impression that characters in Russian literature are self-obsessed, depressive and/or choose to ruin their lives over nothing. That's definitely true here. Strictly speaking you couldn't call them self-obsessed since it's a story about altruism, goodness and thinking of other people, but even so they're all locked into a claustrophobic mental world of their own making. This film has almost no external plot developments. Instead it's all about them, focused obsessively inwards. What's stopping them from just shrugging their shoulders and getting on with their lives? Bugger all, that's what. Disbelief must be suspended to believe in this in a Japanese setting, but try imagining it in Australia and you'll create a comedy classic. "Setsuko Hara doesn't love me... buy hey, on the other hand, surf's up! Who's in for a beach barbecue?"
When it all ends in tragedy, as is inevitable, you might merely think they're all twats. I'm sure the novel has more emotional force, but as far as the film's concerned you'll probably have to read the book and then bring those memories for yourself.
That said, Kurosawa does some interesting things. The original is set during summer, but Kurosawa takes us to the northernmost island of Japan, Hokkaido, in winter instead. Look in particular at the snow. It's beautiful, but it's also oppressive in a way that feels like a reflection of the characters' inner lives. It's everywhere. There's no escape from it. I'm convinced Kurosawa even uses special effects to make it fall during the film's emotional highpoint, halfway through.
The winter festival is also memorable, with ice skating devils. Children might even find that scene scary.
It's too long, of course. Admittedly it's also too short because it's clearly a butchered shell of Kurosawa's vision and the film I watched is a halfway house that no one was satisfied with, but I can see the studio's point of view. It's 166 minutes of characters being Russian. Yowzers. Kurosawa does tend to make long films, for instance with samurai epics that test my patience, but this in particular is a plot you wouldn't think needed a three-hour running time. I was expecting War and Peace, or at least something with a huge cast and/or a story spanning decades, but it's surprisingly focused and domestic. There are only a few main characters and not much happens to them.
I will say though that the film never dragged. It doesn't feel languid or drawn-out. Kurosawa knows how to shoot a strong scene and he's had to be ruthless enough in the editing suite that the film never seems to dawdle.
There's also a lot here that's excellent, starting with the cast. Toshiro Mifune gets plenty to do and is every bit as powerful as you'd expect, while Masayuki Mori finds a gentle, natural rhythm in the title role. He underplays his idiocy, but I really like the characterisation he creates. Meanwhile Setsuko Hara was a big enough star that she got the film a reasonable box office return, despite the fact that Japanese audiences didn't really like it.
In the end, this didn't work for me. It was a fight to keep watching it. It ticks all the boxes marked "classic", but eventually it might as well have been beating me off with a club. Nevertheless it would be ridiculous to write it off, since it keeps its integrity and vision in the teeth of movie-killing handicaps. It has emotionally rich material in the hands of strong actors and a world-beating director. It creates a memorable atmosphere. Much here is delicate and deft, including some outstanding scenes, and I'm sure I'd get far more from it on a languid, immersive rewatch. I don't think I'll ever like its story, though.