THE IDIOT

(Japanese title: Hakuchi)
(1951 - Japan)
With Masayuki Mori, Setsuko Hara, Toshiro Mifune, Yoshiko Kuga, Minoru Chiaki, Takashi Shimura
Written and Directed by
Akira Kurosawa
Black and White
Reviewed by JB

     Hidden between his groundbreaking RASHOMON and the classics IKIRU and SEVEN SAMURAI, THE IDIOT is one of Kurosawa's least discussed films.  An adaptation of the classic Russian novel by Dostoefsky, reset in postwar Japan, THE IDIOT has been disparaged by some of the most famous Kurosawa experts.  Stephen Prince (The Warrior's Camera) calls it "amazingly bad" and "as close to an embarrassingly poor film as he has ever come" while Donald Richie (A Hundred Years of Japanese Cinema) describes it as "wildly uneven" and accuses the cast of overacting. I don't find it as bad as all that, but it is far from my favorite Kurosawa film.

     A pet project of the director, for whom Dostoefsky was his favorite author, THE IDIOT was originally 265 minutes long. Shokichu Studios balked at the length and told Kurosawa they had to cut it in half. ("You 'd better cut it lengthwise", Kurosawa reportedly replied).  The resulting film is still a long, sometimes tedious, occasionally rewarding piece of work that nevertheless will always be overlooked, given the attention that will forever be placed on the superb, near-perfect films that surround it.

     The studio interference is evident early on, as within five minutes, a silent movie-style intertitle is shown, telling us what has happened in the scenes that have been removed.  Masayuki Mori as 'the idiot" Kameda (Prince Myshkin in the novel) and Toshiro Mifune as the world-wise Akama have barely been introduced when the title cards begin throwing names and places at us in a way that is guaranteed to cause the reaction "Who?  What?  What the...?".  Mori gives one of the film's best performances as Kameda, who suffered a nervous breakdown during the war and returns home a kind, simple and damaged man.  He is matched by the two main actresses in the cast, Setsuko Hara and Yoshiko Kuga, who play the two rivals who fall for this angelic soul.  Mifune does the best he can as the rich Akama, who is involved with one of the women, but I am not sure if the laws of nature ever intended Toshiro Mifune to have a pompadour and a fancy silk bathrobe. 

     Having not read the novel, I cannot say whether it is a good adaptation.  Therein lies the problem.  Movies based on films should be independent, not relying on the audience's knowledge of the source material.  As played, THE IDIOT at times resembles Woody Allen's gag in LOVE AND DEATH in which a character recites her problems, which all boil down to character A loves B, who loves C, who loves D...  The film is not incoherent, it merely struggles to rise above the melodramatic love quadrangles of the plot and become something more meaningful.  However much a pleasure it is to watch the talented "Kurosawa Players" in action no matter what the material, they are given little to do here except spout dialogue and look agitated in close-ups.  Unlike most of Kurosawa's greatest films, THE IDIOT relies heavily on dialogue to drive the story along.  The film is rarely visually compelling, and even when it is, such as the montage of Kameda's breakdown at the end of part one, and the winter carnival that opens part two, it still doesn't match Kurosawa's best work. A noble failure at best. 2½ - JB

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