Kameda (Masayuki Mori) is a naïve man who suffers from epilepsy. He returns home to Hokkaido after almost being shot by firing squad in Okinawa. There he meets Taeko (Setsuko Hara), a former mistress to a rich business man, who is now so unpopular in town that her former lover has offered a 600,000 yen dowry to anyone willing to marry her. Kameda’s growing relationship with Taeko puts him at odds with Adama (Toshiro Mifune) a passionate and brooding man he met on the train to Hokkaido.
Following the local popularity of Stray Dog and the international success of Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa partnered with the Shochiku movie studio – who had funded his earlier film Scandal – on his dream project. He had been a fan of Russian literature for some time, particularly Fyodor Dostoevsky, and thus embarked on a lengthy adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. In adapting the novel he relocated the action from 19th century St Petersburg to contemporary Hokkaido. Unfortunately the end result is probably one of the weakest of Kurosawa’s films thus far: it is slightly confusing, it regularly drags to interminable lengths, and the melodramatic antics of its characters lead to an egregious amount of bad over-acting. The more interesting question than whether or not The Idiot is any good is actually why it wound up so mediocre.
Left with a relatively free hand to direct the film, Kurosawa worked had to ensure as much of the novel as possible was translated to the screen. His original cut of The Idiot ran a jaw-dropping 265 minutes. This absolutely outraged the executives at the Shochiku movie studio, who immediately forced the excision of almost 100 minutes of footage. The final theatrical cut of 166 minutes still displeased the studio, who demanded Kurosawa cut even more footage. He famously suggested they could cut the whole film length-ways if they wanted anything else taken out. It was released in its 166 minute version and was a commercial and critical failure. The 265-minute version was lost in the following decades; Kurosawa actively went looking for it 20 years later, only to conclude the print had been destroyed.
It is important to know going in that The Idiot is a severely compromised picture. It suffers from the worst of both worlds. Clearly at 265 minutes it would have been an interminably long picture, but with that much Kurosawa would have had plenty of time to properly set up the characters and introduce their relationships one by one. With about 100 of those minutes gone, it feels like all of the introductions that would have ensured the audience was engaged have been excised. The film’s first half-hour is a very tedious combination of abrupt scenes and intertitles explaining what is going on – less like a film and more like a summary of one. There is a weird quirk of film editing that seems worth bearing in mind: cut out too much and you can destroy a film’s pace. A good example is Michael Cimino’s notorious western Heaven’s Gate. In its butchered theatrical release, it’s a pretty incomprehensible and dull mess. In its subsequent extended re-release, while not a classic, it suddenly becomes a much more intriguing and entertaining work. the same is true of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven – the extended director’s cut feels like a shorter film than the theatrical edit. Long stories need room to breathe, and it is likely The Idiot was suffocated in the editing room.
That said, it is still not certain that the additional footage would entirely save the film. The lead cast consists of three actors for whom I have an enormous amount of affection and respect: regular Kurosawa performer Toshiro Mifune, Ozu stalwart Setsuko Hara, and their contemporary Masayuki Mori – who had just finished working with Kurosawa on Rashomon. It is a melodramatic story, but their acting seems to extend even beyond that. Mori plays the titular idiot Kameda with a combinations of tics and clutching hands. Mifune – a bold performer at the best of times – plays his rival and friend Akama with crazy eyes and over-the-top shouting. Hara is the biggest surprise: as Yasujiro Ozu’s most frequent collaborator she was a master of restrained, dignified performances, and here she is over-acting as much as Mifune. It is certainly the least effective of her performances that I have seen.
The Idiot is overwrought, over-long and ultimate quite a chore through which to sit. Due to its troubled production it is impossible to lay blame solely at the feet of any single person. There are glimmers of inventive direction here and there, but ultimately it feels like a waste of time. It seems one for the completists only.