Kurosawa Diary, Part 8: The Idiot

By the beginning of the 1950’s, Akira Kurosawa was capable of making a masterpiece on the order of Rashomon, but he still couldn’t make two decent movies in a row. His follow-up to Rashomon, The Idiot, stinks to high heaven. And at 166 minutes, it’s a very long stink.

(Kurosawa’s original cut ran 265 minutes, and the studio insisted he cut it. We’ll never know if the suits destroyed a masterpiece or saved our sanity.)

I had seen The Idiot once before yesterday afternoon—at Wheeler Auditorium about 30 years ago. I hated it then. But watching all of Kurosawa’s available films, in chronological order, required me to watch it again.

Based on a Dostoyevsky novel (which I haven’t read), tells the story of Kameda, a man with a mental disability who moves in with relatives and disrupts the local community. Despite the title, Kameda doesn’t seem so much idiotic and naive, socially awkward, and extremely good at judging other people.

Most of the story concerns his romantic prospects, and those prospects’ other romantic prospects, until it becomes not so much a love triangle as a love pentagon. That sounds like a lot more fun than it actually is. No one generates any passion (except anger, and that’s fleeting) and you have a hard time caring about anyone. That it moves at a glacier pace doesn’t help.

Kurosawa was probably the least romantic of all major filmmakers. This was his only film built primarily around romantic love, and few of his others even have romantic subplots (No Regrets of Our Youth and Seven Samurai being the only ones that come to mind). Maybe The Idiot shows why he avoided them.

Watching for the film in context of his career at that time, I noticed a few interesting points:

  • By 1951, the American military censors must have been lightening up. Listening to the Drunken Angel extras, I discovered that Japanese films during the occupation were not allowed to mention the occupation. But here, Kameda’s disability stems from almost being executed in an American prison for war crimes he did not commit.
  • Kurosawa appeared to be going through an Orson Welles period here. Lots of wide-angle, deep focus shots of the sort one doesn’t associate with Kurosawa.
  • He also seemed to be going through a period of de-emphasizing Toshiro Mifune. After three Mifune starring vehicles (The Quiet Duel, Stray Dog, and Scandal), and allowing Mifune to steal the ensemble Rashomon, he gave the actor a supporting role, here. His next film, Ikiru, would be the only Kurosawa film of this period where Mifune doesn’t appear at all. Soon he’d be back to making Mifune star vehicles.

The good news is that this would be the last turkey Kurosawa would make for nearly 30 years. And the 13 films he made in that period range from very good to amongst the greatest works of 20th century art. So I’m going to enjoy this project for awhile.