Dedicated to Mr.Kanin
Analysis of Akira Kurosawa`s "Idiot" (1951)


Chapter 1 Background
Chapter 2 Over acting
Chapter 3 Not showing
Chapter 4 Film Noir
Chapter 5 Doomed Mansion
Chapter 6: Watching "Eye"

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Analysis of Akira Kurosawa's "Idiot"


     Akira Kurosawa's "Idiot", adaptation of Dostoyevsky's novel, is a relatively unknown work compared with other masterpieces, but this film, made in 1951, thought to be his career peak, just between "Rashomon" and "Seven Samurai", somehow has certain tense and weird moody atmosphere which is strongly appealing and unforgettable. Also interestingly "Idiot" seems to have some influence of film noir from Hollywood. I would like to analyze one of the Japanese pioneer director's work in Japanese cinema's golden era of the 1950s.   


Chapter 1: Back ground

     "Idiot" was Kurosawa's dream project. He was obsessed with Russian literature, especially Dostoyevsky, since his childhood. Early 20th century in Japan, many intellectuals thought that Russia is the true highly sophisticated country in terms of culture including art, literature and classic music etc. Also that closed atmosphere was mysterious and Japanese people tend to adore that.

There was even a big scandal in 1930s that one of the Japanese biggest film star actress Yoshiko Okada (#) actually crossed the border between Japan and Russia to run away, because her lover was a communist when Japan was under the "thought control" and pursued by a police. They believed that Russia is the utopia, but they ended up in a jail in Siberia and her lover was killed and she barely survived and lived in Russia until her death in 1992. This right of the case disclosed in the 1980s so her afterwards in Russia was a mystery for a long time. Although Russia is located next to Japan, so close, but also feel so far away and Russia has been always a mystic country and stimulates Japanese people's imagination: Kurosawa was not an exception.

In the film, that weird wall and interior in Akama's doomed mansion could be his image of Russia. He was the director cared about mise-en-scene and "the wall" helped him to go over the budget. Anyway, the whole exotic atmosphere of the film, from Japanese viewpoint, must derives from Kurosawa's longing for mysterious Russia.    

(#) Yoshiko Okada appeared in Ozu's "Woman of Tokyo"(33), "Until the day we meet again"(32) and "Inn in Tokyo"(35) etc.

Kurosawa later recalls that "I suffered most in Idiot's production." He always carried around the novel of Dostoyevsky's "Idiot" to the set and consult with it. He tried to make all the details in the novel to the movie and ended up making his longest film, 4 hours 25 minutes, but it was cut down to 2 hours 46 minutes by a studio. Kurosawa was really angry and said "If you want to cut the film, cut it lengthways and destroy the whole thing."

Also there's an interesting story that while the production of this film Kurosawa was breeding his assistant director, Mr. Nomura, that Kurosawa made him to decide all the decision of "OK or NG" of each scene. He stopped that in his next work "Seven Samurai" because "It was tiresome and I don't have any margin now." This is interesting because "Idiot" was a commercially failure in Japan and he had to think about "balance of his art and commercial success" after this film: which actually led him make the masterpiece "Seven Samurai" that action scene was what audience's wanted then. So the "Idiot" is thought to be Kurosawa's last true "100% Egoistic work." It's flooded with his obsession and ambition.     

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Chapter 2: Over acting

     There are controversy going on about the "over act" in this film. Actually Kurosawa intended to show that way and made actors to exaggerate their act and facial expression. Ozu wrote an article "Don't be too wild Kurosawa" in Mainichi News paper, 22 Jan. 1952, saying "Setuko Hara's (Taeko in "Idiot") acting have good points and bad points. If she was used in the way in the "Idiot", she may not exercise her great side." Ozu was afraid that her stagy act in Idiot might ruin her reputation as "ideal traditional Japanese woman"(#2): which has just reinforced by Ozu's "Late Spring" in 1949. But her act in the "Idiot" has some sort of power and made it unforgettable for some people, like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950) by Billy Wilder. The way she stands divinely like a queen when Kameda and Ayako arrives into Akama's doomed mansion or the way she behaves in her birthday party. Her act is somehow out of norm and heavenly which draws audience's attention on her.

Also it is effective to establish a tension and weird atmosphere of paranoia. Stagy act certainly has power on the screen when it used properly, but on the other hand when it goes too far, or wrong direction, stagy over act could end up being phony or too unnatural. In the Idiot, there are some scenes that too unnatural and weird but at some point you might don't care about it and could be even unforgettable scene because it's too strong. But it truly depends on one's taste.

Also there are surrealistic scenes like femme fatal suddenly shows up on Kameda's way home at night and she's wearing a black coat with a hood like a "Death" in a Bergman's "The seventh Seal" (1957), or suddenly appears from nowhere at the carnival night and leaves mysterious words and disappear. This film is not trying to be real in the first place, so the over act and everything are the atmosphere of "Idiot": tone of the film is unified. The back cover of the video, made by New Yorker video, generously says "Stupendous version of the Idiot".  

(#2) Setuko Hara was called "Eternal Virgin" and thought to be the most beautiful Japanese woman and also icon of ideal traditional Japanese woman. She is the legendary biggest figure of actress in Japan. Her first big success was German and Japan's associated production of "New Land" 1937
("Samurai's Daughter") directed by Arnold Fanck: it was Nazi's propaganda film, even Hitler came to the premiere, and renewed both Japan and German's box-office record back then. She often appears in Ozu's film: "Tokyo Story"(53), "Early Summer"(51) etc, Naruse's film: "Meshi"(51) etc, and two of Kurosawa:"No regret for our youth"(46) and "Idiot"(51). For Ozu, she was what Mihune was for Kurosawa.


Chapter 3: Not showing

     In this film, Kurosawa often uses the "Not showing" effects as a key element of this doomed drama: like "Lubitsch touch". First of all, the femme fatal Taeko was only introduced threw the big picture on the wall of photo shop, which actually reminds the opening scene of "The Woman in the window"(44), and she herself won't show up for about 30 minutes, even though she's the star of this film. All her story and rumors prevailed the town and when taeko finally shows up at the door of the secretary's house, it gives the big impact not only to Kameda but to the audience that everybody wanted to see her badly at this point and they could finally get what they want. Also the first picture is placed in the center of the composition and sort of looking down the two men. It implies the relationships of the triangle love at the beginning of the film.    

There are some scenes that Taeko laughs hysterically: like when she found out that Ayako was a just a jealous kid, Kurosawa won't show Taeko's face but he shoots the reaction shot of surprised people around her. He is hiding the face what the audience wants to see and, instead he stimulates the audience's imagination that she must look really crazy.

Also after Kameda proposed Ayako and she came back to the dining room where Kameda was waiting for her, Ayako saids "Don't look back. I don't want you to see my face'". But Kameda saids "How awful face" without looking her back. As matter of fact, Kameda was seeing the reflection of the window in front of him but "the window" will not showed on the screen. It exists and Ayako and Kameda straightly looks into it but audience is not allowed to see. At this scene, the camera is being the window's point of view and it's stronger to show their faces straightly look into it rather than showing the window's reflection. As I will talk later, Kurosawa was obsessed with a human faces then.  

      And the most important "not showing" effects is that Kurosawa is not showing Taeko's dead body at the ending. Akama saids "I never saw something that beauty" and Kameda agrees after seeing it, but it is covered with curtain and the audience can't see. Kurosawa is leaving, maybe, the most beautiful shot to the audience's imagination. Sometimes it's more impressive "not to see" rather than actually seeing it. 

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 Chapter 4: Film Noir influence!?  

     When you consider the murder + paranoid world with the strong figure of the femme fatal, fatalism, the expressionistic lighting and darkness of the end of the film: the use of shadows and low key and high contrast lighting. Also the resembling of the opening scene from "the Woman in the Window" as I mentioned earlier: it's made in 1944 so it's possible that he got inspiration from it. All the factors show that it's hard to think that "Idiot" has nothing to do with "Film Noir." Later he directed "The Bad Sleeps Well" (1960) and "High and Low" (1962) which are considered to be the Film Noir of Japanese art cinema. Was he trying to put some "essence of film noir" to the "Idiot"? Actually you can see some aspect of that in "Rashomon"(50) too. The use of multiple point of view of flash backs, where did he get that idea? "Citizen Kane"(41), or "The Killers"(46)? But the darker side is stronger in the "Idiot."

     The term "Film Noir" was first used by French critic in 1946 but the term didn't get widespread use until 1970s. And James Naremore says, in his "More than a Night", that "Film noir is both an important cinematic legacy and an idea we have projected on to the past." (11) So whatever the visual and narrative traits are, now, associated with the term "Film Noir", "Idiot", made in 1951, could be the film which contained the "idea" which Kurosawa got it from Hollywood back then: the roots in the German expressionism in the 20s. It doesn't have a flashback and has only a little amount of voice over narration, but the idea of film noir is there.   

Chapter 5: Analyzing the doomed mansion scene + obsession to face

     There is a symbolic scene when Ayako (innocent girl) insists to meet with Taeko (femme fatal) and came to the Akama's doomed mansion. Kurosawa crosscuts inside the room, Taeko and Akama talking, and Ayako and Kameda (the idiot) approaching to the room. When Ayako and Kameda were walking the hall way, it's shot in a deep focus and using reverse dolly, so the distance behind them is exaggerated and the hallway seems longer than it really is, and gives us a sense that the couple is walking to the hell or something. Kurosawa liked the deep focus shot and use it's effect efficiently.

The hallway's wall also has a shadow like a jail and they seem like trapped: they came to the wrong house. (Innocent couple doesn't fit here) When the two came into the room, Kurosawa maintains scene of 3 minutes with no talking by using frequent close up and the exaggeration of facial expression. Taeko react to every single moves of the innocent girl, Ayako. Here, she can't hide her hatred and jealousy, inter-cut of fire burning up from the stove is symbolic, toward Ayako and it's obvious by the exaggerate face: which is grotesque and she looks like a witch. Kurosawa was obsessed with a human face this era, especially the close up. He gradually going to lose his interest in close up when the wide-screen came along, so it's interesting to see the peak of his obsession toward the human face close up in this scene. Also he succeeded to create an atmosphere of "quietness before the storm" by use of silence, noise of wind and weird sound of door grating. This quietness adds up the tense of the scene.   

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Chapter6: Watching "Eye"

     Kurosawa's obsession toward face evolved to obsession to "Eye" which relates to watching. After Kameda left the Akama's mansion, just before the end of Part 1, Kurosawa shows Akama watching Kameda from the peephole and Kurosawa jump cuts the close up of eyes, making it gradually bigger. After that he even uses double exposure, Kameda walking the street feeling scared to be watched by someone and Akama's extreme close up of eyes. This scene of psychological game adds the mysterious atmosphere to the film. Also later when Ayako and Kameda visited the Akama's mansion and the two walking up the stairs and Akama watching from the hole of the weird wall are put in the same composition. Akama placed in the center sort of looking down the two coming up looks like he is the guard of hell and the man manipulates the place: the one in power around there. He proves that later by killing Taeko, drove Kameda crazy which separates Ayako from him, although he himself got crazy but he is the one destroyed everybody and doomed fate was implied by that scene.

  ---Conclusion + postscript that what I think---

     "Idiot" was the film that I was somehow attracted from the first viewing. But it was also a complicated film that I needed to see several times to understand the content. Some critics say that "Idiot" is "unnecessary too long" or they just say it's a "flop." Is it? I actually agree that there are some scenes that seems to be too long or acting is too unnatural. But what makes this film so unforgettable? Doomed atmosphere or paranoid story? I realized that some of the attraction comes from "Film Noirsh atmosphere" when I took and study "Film Noir" class at NYU's summer cession.("Sunset Boulvard" and "Double Indemnity" were the films that was most impressed.)

I was always looking for a compliment about "Idiot" to reinforce my feelings, but even finding a comment about it was hard, and that often tended to be a negative one. "Idiot" is basically ignored film as Kurosawa's legacy. But while I was researching, I found a perfect answer for me that representing my feeling and concerns about this film.

"When Kurosawa find out one strong character is interesting to describe, he don't care about the balance of the whole picture and obsessed to it, even from the middle of the production of the picture. And it might end up like a rough gemstone needs to be polish but it certainly leaves strong impact. His sudden enthusiasm and leaning were the factor that why he could have such a various range of filmography at the end. You should see that leaning as one of his wave during his entire career and not as just a flop. Every film was the process of what he became: a great filmmaker" (Higuchi) I do think that "Rashomon" is more perfected and balanced as a whole picture and I was stunned when I first saw it, but "Idiot" do have a weird power to attract particular people. Nobody think that "Idiot" is the Kurosawa's best film but could be one's favorite Kurosawa's film. .



 "More than Night" by James Naremore University of California press, Berkeley, 1998

"Kurosawa's film" by Naohumi Higuchi 1999 Chikuma Book

"Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu" by Ichiro Shiki 2000 Takara Book

"Japanese Actress"  by Inuhiko Yomoda, Iwanami book

"A short history of the Movies" by Gerald Mast 6th edition 1996 by Allyn and Bacon A simon and Schuster Company

Japanese Cinema, 1998 kadokawa book

----- Filmography -----

"Rashomon" (1950), "Idiot"(1951), Directed by Akira Kurosawa

"Tokyo Story" (1953), "Late Spring"(1949).Directed by Yasujiro Ozu,

"The Woman in the Window" (1944) Directed by Fritz Lang 

"The Killers" (1946) Directed by Robert Siodmak 

"Citizen Cane"(1941) Directed by Orson Welles

"Sunset Boulevard" (1950) Directed by Billy Wilder.

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