November 11, 2021
The Idiot (1951)
Grade: 63/100

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Masayuki Mori, Toshirô Mifune, Setsuko Hara

What it's about. Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Fyodor Dostoevsky, the Russian writer celebrated for "Crime and Punishment" and "The Brothers Karamazov." "The Idiot" was another esteemed work, and the subject of an early and ambitious adaptation by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.

It is said that Kurosawa's first cut was 4 hours, 15 minutes long. His studio, Shochiku, demanded a further cut of 100 minutes, to the surviving running time of 2 hours, 46 minutes. In this adaptation, the setting is moved to contemporary Japan. Kameda (Masayuki Mori) is a gentle, guileless young man. He was sentenced to death by firing squad during World War II, but was pardoned at the last moment. The incident has left him traumatized, and many believe he is an idiot. But is he? The film's principals are uncertain.

The honest and soulful Kameda soon draws the interest of two women, Taeko (Setsuko Hara) and Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga). Taeko is disreputable as the former mistress of Tohata (Eijirô Yanagi). Ayako is the respectable but fiery daughter of Mr. Ono (Takashi Shimura). Ayako is also coveted by landlord Kayama (Minoru Chiaki). Mercurial layabout Akama (Toshirô Mifune) is obsessed with wedding Taeko, and sometimes harbors a desire to kill Kameda to remove his competition for her.

Kameda tries to please everyone, and lies to no one. But he is indecisive, and lets others make decisions for him. Taeko believes she is no good for Kameda, and writes letters to Ayako imploring her to marry Kameda. These letters compel Ayako and Kameda to visit Taeko, who by now lives with Akama. The visit proves disastrous.

How others will see it. At, The Idiot ranks 21st in popularity among Kurosawa-directed films. His number one film, Seven Samurai, has 67 times the number of user votes. The user rating of 7.2, though nominally high, is average-minus for a Kurosawa movie. Women over 45, though, grade the movie higher at 7.7 out of 10, perhaps due to greater sympathy for Taeko and Kameda.

The Idiot was ignored by film festivals, even in Japan. Per, it was the lowest ranked of all postwar Kurosawa films in the annual Kinema Junpo critics' poll, out of 25 such films. The reception must have been a disappointment for Kurosawa. It was a pet project for him, since Dostoevsky was his favorite Russian writer.

The user reviews note that the film cannot be justly criticized since it represents the studio cut instead of Kurosawa's. Kurosawa-as-victim brings him a measure of sympathy, but a number of reviews are unforgiving: "Kurosawa's worst by a large margin", "I am sorry I even saw it." I suspect the film's relative unpopularity, then and now, has to do with the lead character, Kameda. The other characters view him differently: Akama sees him as a buddy, Taeko sees him as a soul mate in misery, Ayako wants him as a husband, and Mr. Ono wants to take advantage of him. But much of the audience sees him a cipher, dull and flat. There is a reason why so many Kurosawa movies instead feature the more emotive Mifune as the lead.

How I felt about it. At the time The Idiot was made, Setsuko Hara was a bigger star than Mifune. That is why she has top billing, even though she has much less screen time than Mori. It could have been a great role for Hara, playing a tragic fallen woman, but it didn't work out that way due to the film's lack of commercial appeal.

The character of Kameda is open to interpretation, and probably has symbolism whose specific meaning may have been known only to Kurosawa. In the movie, he continually brings out the guilt in the men around him: Tohata, for taking the then-underage Taeko as a mistress; Mr. Ono, for attempting to rob Kameda of his property; Akama, for harboring jealousy and malice toward the innocent Kameda; and Kayama, for accepting a bribe from Tohata to marry Taeko.

Of course, the film asks who is the idiot. We know it is not Kameda. The biggest idiot is Akama. Taeko is also an idiot, for provoking the men in her life. Ayako is an idiot for insisting on seeing Taeko, against the advice of Kameda, whose judgment is always best.