A Month of Kurosawa: The Idiot (1951)

To celebrate the upcoming release of my book, Akira Kurosawa: A Viewer’s Guide, due out Dec. 15 from Rowman & Littlefield — preorder here! — I’ll be doing capsule reviews all month covering every single Kurosawa film and posting (very) brief excerpts. These will be short impressions and recommendations, nothing more. For a full, detailed analysis of each, grab the book!

The Idiot (1951)

Following Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa tackled something quite different: a faithful adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Much like the book, it’s a sprawling, sometimes glacial affair focused on a complex web of interpersonal relationships. His initial cut came in at an imposing four and a half hours. At the behest of the studio he cut it down to three hours, then a further 14 minutes was cut from that, resulting in the 166-minute version we have today.

The result is a choppy, uneven work that has largely been slammed by critics, scholars, and fans alike.

That’s too bad, because there was potential for greatness here. From the book:

Like the film that immediately preceded it, Rashomon, The Idiot frequently deals with the concept of truth. No one speaks truthfully except Kameda. No one is willing to be honest about their feelings. Declarations of hate are often declarations of repressed love. … None of these people deal in truths. They deal in masked truths, half truths, twisted truths. While Rashomon calls into question the idea that there is objective truth, The Idiot suggests that there are truths we all recognize but that most of us choose to ignore

Unfortunately, it doesn’t coalesce into greatness. There are hints of it, to be sure — a 30-minute birthday party scene is not only the film’s centerpiece, it’s a masterful piece of filmmaking — but ultimately, The Idiot ends up being a bloated, ambitious creative failure. Despite that, I argue in my upcoming book that The Idiot is overdue for a reassessment. Check it out to see the case I make for it.

That said, Kurosawa fans will find some things to enjoy here, but casual fans should probably take a pass.

You can get the movie in this excellent boxed set.


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