Following "Rashomon’s" great worldwide success, Akira Kurosawa turned his attention to a longtime dream project of his: an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s "The Idiot". Representing, among many other things, yet another connection between Kurosawa and Western culture, his film relocates the book’s action from 19th-century Saint Petersburg to post-WWII Hokkaido , creating an odd fusion of Eastern and Western styles and sensibilities.
Masayuki Mori stars as the childlike, fragile POW camp survivor Kinji Kameda who comes to live with Mr. Ono, a relative of his (Takashi Shimura). Extremely docile and prone to epileptic fits, Kameda all too quickly becomes trapped in a destructive whirlpool of family politics and is split between the down-to-earth Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga) and the seductive Taeko Nasu (a cool Setsuko Hara). Rounding out the all-star cast is Minoru Chiaki (the priest from "Rashomon") as a dowry-chasing troublemaker, Ozu regular Chieko Higashiyama as Ayako’s stern mother and Toshiro Mifune as the mysterious and intimidating Denkichi Akama, who maintains a shaky friendship with Kameda throughout the film. Mifune in particular does some fine work here, toning down his acting style after his over-the-top turn in "Rashomon" while still bearing an undeniably magnetic presence as a man continually on the brink of fury and madness.
Kurosawa’s film is perhaps best known as yet another victim of studio meddling. It originally clocked in at 266 minutes, but was drastically re-cut to 166 minutes, the missing footage firmly believed to be lost forever. This is certainly a shame, as the surviving version clearly bears the makings of a grand vision cut short. Nonetheless, what remains is fascinating stuff. The actors assembled onscreen breathe life and endless nuances into a collection of deeply flawed individuals – save, perhaps, the dazed Kameda, who truly embodies innocence both lost and regained. The characters’ emotional turmoil is amplified by the winter weather which covers Hokkaido with layers of snow and ice, the billowing flurries, gleaming icicles and frosted-over windows giving everything a strange, netherworldly feel. A particularly memorable sequence depicts Kameda being pursued through a foreboding labyrinth of blowing steam and dark shadows. Another setting which serves as an extension of character is Akama’s home, its dark, derelict interiors not unlike those of a haunted house, reflecting the haunted soul of its owner. Sure enough, though a portion of it is lost, there is still plenty to discover and savor in "The Idiot".
Seen today, the film bears the marks of great ambition and potential (the possibility of 100 additional minutes to this already remarkable work sends the imagination spinning). However, despite its butchered form, "The Idiot" still demonstrates Kurosawa’s formidable artistic boldness and talent, and while one could always hope for the discovery of a complete print intact in some Tokyo film archive (not unlike the discovery of missing footage from Fritz Lang’s "Metropolis" in Buenos Aires this past summer), the current version remains highly satisfying and perhaps still worthy of the masterpiece status its maker clearly intended for it.