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AK Online Film Club #13: The Idiot

The IdiotWelcome to the 13th edition of the Akira Kurosawa Online Film Club! Yes, a year has already passed since we began with Rashomon, and what a wonderful year it has been!

But, forward we shall soldier, with this month’s target set on The Idiot, Kurosawa’s 1951 film perhaps best known for two things: one, it is often considered Kurosawa’s weakest effort, and two, the film was heavily re-edited by the studio (Shochiku), which pressured Kurosawa to slash off almost two hours off its running time. To the best of everyone’s knowledge, and despite Kurosawa’s attempts in the early 90s to dig up the original negatives, the only version that exists today is the edited 166 minute cut which some have deemed incoherent and difficult to follow.

That is, however, not the only point of criticism typically launched against the movie. An adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel of the same name, The Idiot has often been viewed in terms of its relationship with the source text. While Kurosawa’s adaptation is on the surface very faithful to the book, many (starting with Richie) have criticised it for being too faithful to the story, while at the same time losing not only the underlying spirit of the novel, but also hampered its own cinematic qualities as a movie.

But, despite its prevalence in the literature, this is obviously not the only way in which to approach the work. Yoshimoto in particular reminds us of this, and encourages us to consider The Idiot as “an occasion to ask some fundamental questions concerning translation between different artistic media, cultures, and historical periods” (192). Yoshimoto further goes on to note the film’s prominent use of close-ups and “over-acting”, especially in the case of actress Setsuko Hara whose performance here is compared to those that she has given under Yasujiro Ozu, thus possibly giving us a glimpse of the different methods of film making employed by Kurosawa and Ozu, arguably the two best known Japanese film makers of all time.

For Kurosawa himself, The Idiot seemed to remain a positive memory despite the problems with its production and the hostile reviews that followed its release. From all of his films, he claimed to have received most letters for The Idiot, and all in all considered that he had made an entertaining film, and not only succeeded in what he had wanted to do with the source material, but had also become a much stronger film maker as a result.

But enough about the reception that the film has received before us. The floor, good people of AkiraKurosawa.info, is now yours.



Jeremy Quintanilla

It rather unfortunate no “directors cut” exist. I do wonder if Shochiku can be fully to blame for what is largely a forgettable film. It would go against the usually well done pacing of Kurosawa, but to think his cut would near 5 hours, you have to wonder if at any giving time, does the film do anything.

Adaptation is no easy challenge, and perhaps Kurosawa got caught up in following the book too faithfully, which typically makes for an awful film. On the other hand, giving Kurosawa accomplishment and a time period where we see Kurosawa finding his “method”. I’ll have to maintain the belief Shochiku is to sole blame, as studios never make good directors-or good anything for that matter.
Though to back track, some choices of directing, seems to say Kurosawa was still stumbling. I guess only Kurosawa’s cut could answer.

Is the year script finished and production started known?



It’s a tough film to nail down because, yeah, a lot of the problems do stem from the choppy nature of the re-edit, but there are a lot of moments were scenes drag on far too long or emotions get way too overblown, so I can’t fully say that Kurosawa is without fault. Maybe it his desire to faithfully bring the book to the screen (and, let’s be honest, it’s a monster of a book that’s tricky to adapt) instead of breaking it down and reorganizing it into something tight and new as he did with HIGH AND LOW or THE BAD SLEEP WELL. Without the director’s cut, we’ll never know.

My only major complaint was making the lead character a former soldier, which I felt clashed with the pure innocence of Prince Myshkin. That’s a spot where I think it would have been more prudent to follow the book, having him hospitalized in a peaceful foreign country since childhood, as that makes him a stranger to the radical social changes everyone else has been forced to live through.

All said, it’s still a compelling, interesting movie with some amazing sequences. And Mifune at his most leonine, complete with a furry mane of a jacket.


Vili Maunula

Jeremy: It would go against the usually well done pacing of Kurosawa, but to think his cut would near 5 hours, you have to wonder if at any giving time, does the film do anything.

I’m not a hundred percent sure about the exact release model planned (although apparently a common one at the time, see Galbraith 144-145), but the original cut was actually intended to be released as two separate films.

My guess is that as much as chopping off one and a half hours must have hurt the film, the bigger problem may well have been the need to turn into a single movie what was perhaps from the beginning planned as two films. This may partly explain some of the awkward pacing.

By the way, reading Galbraith now, I notice that I forgot to mention in my introduction that the film was originally released as a three-hour version cut by Kurosawa, but this was shown only once, after which the studio itself prepared the final 15 minutes shorter cut that we now have, apparently without Kurosawa’s involvement. Although I doubt that the studio there did anything else than chop off stuff (rather than preparing a completely new cut), that makes it even more difficult to talk about Kurosawa’s editing choices.

Jeremy: Adaptation is no easy challenge, and perhaps Kurosawa got caught up in following the book too faithfully, which typically makes for an awful film.

That is indeed true. Do note though that Rashomon, the film Kurosawa had released just before The Idiot, is also an extremely faithful adaptation of Akutagawa’s “In the Grove”, as apart from the addition of the frame story, it goes to surprising lengths to transport the smallest details of Akutagawa’s text onto the big screen.

Of course, here the added frame story does add a lot, but I just wanted to point out that Kurosawa seemed to be at a point in his career where he was doing very faithful adaptations, whether out of experimentation or simply too much reverence towards his source texts — that he actually had the skills to do freer adaptations is clear from his earlier films; that something special was going on with The Idiot is suggested by the fact that instead of using a pencil and a notepad, the script for The Idiot was apparently written with a calligraphy brush, ink and stacks of two meter long rolled paper (Galbraith, 144).

Jeremy: Is the year script finished and production started known?

To the best of my knowledge, although plans for it as usual had been around for quite some time, The Idiot was actually written only after Rashomon. Now, Rashomon came out on August 25, 1950, and as you may remember from Nogami, the team worked on it until the evening of August 24. Very little seems to be documented about the production of The Idiot, and the only date that I have is its release date of May 23, 1951. But, by deducation, I would say that the script must have been written at some point in the nine months between the releases of Rashomon and The Idiot.

I don’t think that I have it anywhere, but I am fairly sure that the original script has been published, and if I’m right it’s in the six (or seven?) volume 全集 黒澤明 collection, which I think includes all of his scripts and then some.

NoelCT: My only major complaint was making the lead character a former soldier, which I felt clashed with the pure innocence of Prince Myshkin.

That’s a good and interesting point, actually. What might have influenced Kurosawa to this change? Was it an attempt to make the story of The Idiot more contemporary for Kurosawa’s audience?



I’m halfway through watching the film and I think the first 50 minutes of the film is extraordinary. Just extraordinary. I love the counter casting of Setsuko Hara which works really well (despite the criticism of her “overracting” which I’ve yet to see and doubt actually occurs) and the film really is an ensemble piece; one of the few in Kurosawa’s filmography.

Yes, the editing is rather random and ambiguous at times, but except for those occurances, I’ve had few problems with it, along with the pacing. The long scene in which there is a birthday celebration for Setsuko Hara has some magical visual scenes and has kept me glued to the screen despite its length and slow pace. Again, I think the main reason it works so well is due to the ensemble cast who really bounce off one another.

Since the 50 minute mark though, I will admit the film has made my interest dwindle, and I hope it doesn’t continue at this rate or else I won’t be able to get through the film in one sitting.

The Idiot has been a visual treat though and quite a surprise (I thought it’d be a lot more dull, as everyone seems to describe it, than it actually is).



Okay having seen the whole film now, I found the pacing to be fine, generally speaking, and only hope some day that the original negatives are found. Why? Because if it was found, I truly believe The Idiot has the potential to become one of Kurosawa’s greatest films.

I think the acting was superb and as I mentioned previously, it really is an ensemble piece. The cinematography is exquisite and I can’t stress enough how much I enjoyed the interactions between some of my favourite Japanese actors and actresses.

The main criticism I have is obviously the editing, which really affects the structure of the film and negates the potential of numerous scenes. Additionally, it makes the film feel disjointed and quirky; in essence, an absurdity. The constant use of wipes just negates the whole purpose and effectiveness of using them; they become an annoyance when used in abundance. Again, these things were outside of Kurosawa’s control. So again, I think the original film would have left us with a magnificent film.

As for those who couldn’t sit through the film in one viewing, I really don’t know why. Then again, I can never sit through Ran in one viewing (I don’t even like the film) so different strokes for different folks. I can’t understand the criticism of “over-acting” that supposedly occurs in the film. In which scene does Setsuko Hara overact? I thought her performance couldn’t have been bettered, along with the rest of the cast. This common criticism comes as a surprise to me, as I tend to be very critical of acting performances, yet I found no problem (as I say, if anything, I thought it was masterful).

Shame the Postwar Kurosawa set comes without a commentary; I think it’s really lacking in that department.

Anyway, who knows, The Idiot footage my resurface one day, after all look at the Metropolis footage that was found last year; a good 80 years after its release. The Idiot has only been around for 55 years…can’t say I’m optimistic though.

Regardless, I found the film to be an absolute (yet completely unexpected) delight that I would gladly watch again (and probably will after I’ve read the book). The film has made me want to fish out the original book so at least it accomplished something.

And yes, I realise I’m in the clear minority.



I’m with you, Ryan. Hakuchi is one of my favorite Kurosawa films…one of the strangest and most disturbing, but most affecting!



Indeed (and I’ve just realised you have Flickr – I too recently got an account!)

It’s also worth mentioning that I thought both Setsuko Hara and Yoshiko Kuga were beautiful in The Idiot (not that they aren’t in their other films).

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