The Idiot (1951)

15 01 2008

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t see Akira Kurosawa as the great director that many make him out to be. I’d even go as far as to say that those samurai films are downright awful. Still, I was pretty sure I’d love this. To a degree, I did. There’s some moments that are just as good out of anything in The Lower Depths, which is probably my (now 2nd) favorite Kurosawa film. That claim doesn’t really amount to much since I don’t outrightly “love” that film, either. I can, however, admire Kurosawa’s intention on making much more character-driven films in contrast to his more popular samurai epics.

Kameda (Masayuki Mori) is a man who has avoided a death sentence. This makes him emotionally unstable, to say the least, and makes him very prone to blackout. His mental problems collide with his emotional ones; he’s caught in a love triangle between Taeko and Ayako played by Setsuko Hara and Yoshiko Kuga. At the same time, his friendship with Akama (Toshiro Mifune) is experiencing turmoil.

All the performances are really wonderful. Kurosawa doesn’t have a way with his actors as much as his peers did (at least he didn’t beat them a la Mizoguchi) but he definitely had some luck here. Mori is great even as a sort of proto-Rain Man/Forrest Gump character. Obviously, this is way better than either of those films. Hara is great as always, even as a completely different character from the one she plays in Ozu’s films. Yoshiko Kuga is very good too, much better than in Cruel Story of Youth (don’t remember her character) but not quite as great as her much more subdued persona in Equinox Flower. Even Toshiro Mifune, who I am almost never a fan of, is pretty good. He does get theatrical at times, but that’s pretty much what his performance called for. He downplays a lot of the violent instincts that I tend to associate with his acting style.

My problem with the film seems a bit superficial unfortunately. At times, it’s downbeat enough to feel like a less aesthetically rigorous Ozu film. Other times, it doesn’t feel that different from a lot of the melodramas that were coming out of America at the same time. Some of the dialogue is so stilted and laughable. “I’ve never met a man with heart that was so pure and true!” or something along those lines. This especially feels awkward put up against the very dated “emotional” score that is far too dominant in the film. Unfortunately, Shochiku cut about 100 minutes from the original version which leads to some very awkward pacing sequences. Towards the beginning, there’s intertitles that serve no purpose other than exposition and explaining what the scenes that were most likely cut. Thankfully, this goes away no more than twenty minutes into the film.

This is definitely a good film and perhaps under different circumstances, I can acknowledge it for the masterpiece that it’s made out to be. I have to agree with a lot of the films detractors, though. I think Kurosawa may have been literally when he adapted Dostoyevsky’s original story. I think the film would have benefited if a lot of the overly-dramatic sequences had been taken out, but I guess Kurosawa really just wanted to see all of the story on screen. Really all of my gripes with this are just things that are simply “not my style” which can be said for a lot of Kurosawa’s work. However, most of this is “my style” and maybe that’s why I think it’s Kurosawa’s best.

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6 responses

16 01 2008
cinemalover

If Kurosawa is not a great director and his samurai movies are “awful” then you have some serious problems with what constitutes quality cinema, or are probably too young to comprehend the greatness of him and his movies.

Are you one of those “its all too dated” types that rather watch newer cinema even if it’s only stealing everything from people like him? I wouldn’t be surprised.

He surpasses all the modern day hacks and many other directors from his time. It doesn’t take a Kurosawa fan to realise that. But i guess some people are just so smart they know everything and their verdict is supposed to me worth more then all serious film historians, critics of world cinema etc that acknowledge his greatness.

If Kurosawa is not a great director, then no one is, including people like Ming Tsai Ling whom you probably adore…

16 01 2008
Michael Kerpan

Kurosawa is, at core, a director of action-adventure films. If one doesn’t respond strongly to this sort of film, then Kurosawa is not likely to make it onto one’s favorite director list. I saw Rashomon in my younger years and hated it — hated it so much that I avoided Japanese films (other than science fiction) for decades. I figured, if this is supposed to be Japan’s “best”, I don’t need to see more.

I gave Kurosawa a second chance (in this decade) only because I needed to see more performances by Setsuko Hara, having fallen (cinematically) in love with her (and with the films of Yasujiro Ozu).

I now love many Kurosawa films, but tend to prefer the least adventure-like ones most. And the one I love most is “Idiot”, despite its disfigurement by studio hacks. Dostoevsky’s novel is one of my two favorites (along with Austen’s Persuasion) — and I feel Kurosawa managed to capture the spirit of the novel almost perfectly, despite the transposition from Russia to Hokkaido, from the mid 1800s to the mid-1900s and from summer to winter.

Kurosawa isn’t on my list of top 5 Japanese directors — but he does make it into my top 10. Kurosawa is a great director — but he is far from the alpha and omega of Japanese cinema — as many of his Western fans claim.

16 01 2008
sidehacker

“If Kurosawa is not a great director and his samurai movies are “awful” then you have some serious problems with what constitutes quality cinema, or are probably too young to comprehend the greatness of him and his movies.”

What constitutes great cinema to me, is my opinion. Kurosawa doesn’t. I do indeed acknowledge everything he was trying to do with his films but he really pales in comparison to his peers. Too “young” to acknowledge the greatness of Seven Samurai? You’re saying that like his action films are really nuanced and deep. It doesn’t take much to understand that film.

“Are you one of those “its all too dated” types that rather watch newer cinema even if it’s only stealing everything from people like him? I wouldn’t be surprised.”

It would only take a look around at my previous posts to realize that I am not at all like that. Do you think these people would even bother to watch The Idiot, which is, if you haven’t noticed, a film I like. Would I care for directors like Ozu, Yamanaka, Naruse, etc if I only watched post-90s stuff?

“But i guess some people are just so smart they know everything and their verdict is supposed to me worth more then all serious film historians, critics of world cinema etc that acknowledge his greatness.”

Uhm, this is a blog and it’s just my opinion. Don’t take my thoughts so seriously.

“If Kurosawa is not a great director, then no one is, including people like Ming Tsai Ling whom you probably adore…”

You mean Tsai Ming-liang? Yes, I do adore him. What’s he got to do with Kurosawa? I would never even bother to compare them. I think you’re trying to say that I should acknowledge as a big influence on modern cinema and I do. He is not quite my style, though. This is a personal thing and am in no way trying to make it sound like fact. Seems like your comment was trying to be more negative than constructive. I’d love to have a worthwhile discussion on The Idiot, a movie I quite liked.

16 01 2008
sidehacker

“Kurosawa is, at core, a director of action-adventure films. If one doesn’t respond strongly to this sort of film, then Kurosawa is not likely to make it onto one’s favorite director list. I saw Rashomon in my younger years and hated it — hated it so much that I avoided Japanese films (other than science fiction) for decades. I figured, if this is supposed to be Japan’s “best”, I don’t need to see more.”

I’m glad you mentioned this. I was sort of thinking that I like Kurosawa, but just have a hard time loving him. When I first got into Tsai and Hou, this was also a problem. When I did begin to love them, I moved on to Ozu and Naruse and had similar problems earlier on. I guess one just needs to get familiar with a director. If I ever find myself comfortable with Kurosawa, then The Idiot will receive an immediate re-watching.

17 01 2008
mrsemmapeel

Kurosawa really isn’t for everyone, although I do think you have a point in saying Sidehacker that perhaps it takes moments to adjust to his style… although I’ve yet to personally be wowed, or truly invested in his films, characters or his filmmaking. I haven’t seen much though, and am still open to see his films, even excited too but in my experience so far I can’t see myself really loving him as one of my favourites.

17 01 2008
Eli

” If Kurosawa is not a great director and his samurai movies are “awful” then you have some serious problems with what constitutes quality cinema, or are probably too young to comprehend the greatness of him and his movies. ”

Even as a fan of Kurosawa, I would say that is this response was very infuriating. Are people not allowed to have taste that differentiate from the canon? It’s not like sidehacker is citing 300 and Sin City as his favourite films. What’s with this “too young” business? The majority of people that I’ve seen (non-critics) who take a major liking to Kurosawa are very young. I liked him the most when I was younger.

“Are you one of those “its all too dated” types that rather watch newer cinema even if it’s only stealing everything from people like him? I wouldn’t be surprised. ”

Wait, so if a film is old and innovative you should not only give it credit but say it’s better than a more modern film that improves on it? Wow, I never knew that cinema was an art of stagnation!

“He surpasses all the modern day hacks and many other directors from his time. It doesn’t take a Kurosawa fan to realise that. But i guess some people are just so smart they know everything and their verdict is supposed to me worth more then all serious film historians, critics of world cinema etc that acknowledge his greatness. ”

Oh, I get it. People don’t have personal taste. Whatever film historians and “critics of world cinema” say is the truth. And I thought we all had something called an opinion! Many have criticized Kurosawa for his conventiality, lack of subtlety and occasional hokeyness.

“If Kurosawa is not a great director, then no one is, including people like Ming Tsai Ling whom you probably adore…”

What does Tsai have to do with this? Do you not like Tsai? That’s unfortunate because all serious film historians, and critics of world cinema acknowledge his greatness.

Sorry for the hostility here – I felt much of it in the post directed to sidehacker, so I felt like it was a fair way to reply.

Also Sidehacker, I doubt that you’ll like Kurosawa much in the future. He is very much a humanist director, but his films are hard to like for people who can’t get through how some of his films are overwrought, theatrical, and conventional.

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