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June 17, 2005

The Idiot

Akira Kurosawa - 1951
Japanese DVD

The most enduring image in Kurosawa's version of The Idiot is snow. Lots and lots of snow. Big, fluffy mountains of snow covering roofs and streets. Throughout most of the film there are blizzards or snow showers.

Made between Rashomon and Ikiru, The Idiot has virtually fallen through the space separating the two acclaimed films. There are several reasons to suspend a critical eye on The Idiot. The only version available is 166 minutes long. Kurosawa's original version which may never have been publicly shown has been documented at 265 minutes. In the initial Japanese release, the film was 180 minutes long. What we know by this information is that the version of The Idiot is not the film Kurosawa intended to make, but one that was compromised for a more commercial length. In his autobiography, Kurosawa also notes that it was soon after The Idiot was released in Japan that Rashomon won the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival, the first of several awards for that film, paving the was for Kurosawa to make films pretty much his way through 1965, and probably in the view of his producers, primarily for the international market.

The quality of the print based on the DVD is suspect. Perhaps Kurosawa's ambitions were far greater than what was allowed in his budget, but many of the exterior shots were filmed with a jarringly different film stock, with the effect similar to that particularly of war films with stock and documentary footage inserted into for polished footage. As the film was a major financial and critical failure for Kurosawa, there was probably less care in preserving the negative or existing prints by the studio.

Still, this film is of interest, at least for those of us who care about the entirety of Kurosawa. The film is an update from Dostoevsky, taking place in post WWII Japan, in Hokkaido. The title character is a passive man, an innocent, whose blankness is given meaning by those in his environment. The convoluted plot is essentially that this man is caught in a triangle between two women who accuse each other of trying to manipulate the innocent for their own benefit.

What was of more interest to me than the story was seeing Setsuko Hara as one part of the triangle. Based primarily on her roles for Yasujiro Ozu, and even Kurosawa's earlier No Regrets for Our Youth, Hara is the most selfless, self sacrificing woman is cinema. In comparison, Meryl Streep is a selfish, conniving bitch. Apparantly Ozu was upset by this film as it deviated sharply from how he presented his muse. Unlike the somewhat mousey woman in Ozu's films, Kurosawa recreates Hara as a woman of fashion, who is able to be assertive, at least for part of the film.

There is a sequence, with the title character, Kameda insistently wooing Akayo. We see a series of short shots, with changes of scene and dress. Most of the dialogue belongs to Akayo, insulting Kameda in one shot, apologizing in the next shot, and later telling Kameda not to visit her every day. This sequence made me think of the breakfast scenes in Citizen Kane, shot to illustrate the changing dynamics in Kane's first marriage. I would not be surprised if this was intentional as Kurosawa loved American film, especially John Ford, and it is quite possible that he had seen Citizen Kane sometime after 1946.
There is also a scene of Kameda sitting alone on a park bench, waiting to meet Ayako. Kameda is totally alone. The scene, from the perspective of Kurosawa's future films, could be viewed as a rough draft for the very similar scene from Ikiru done the next year, with Takashi Shimura sitting alone on a park swing.

Kurosawa's sentimentality gets in the way of making The Idiot as compelling as the films made up through High and Low. As admirable as it is to believe in the "brotherhood of man"' Kurosawa comes to close to overstating his case. Still this is a very watchable film, not as good as the well known films usually associated with Kurosawa (name your own favorite here), but far better than the syruppy sweet Mandadayo.

Posted by peter at June 17, 2005 04:59 PM