Kameda, who has been in an asylum on Okinawa, travels to Hokkaido. There he becomes involved with two women, Taeko and Ayako. Taeko comes to love Kameda, but is loved in turn by Akama. When Akama realizes that he will never have Taeko, his thoughts turn to murder, and great tragedy ensues.Written by
Jim Beaver <email@example.com>
Filmed as a two-part production running 265 minutes. Shochiku (the studio) told Akira Kurosawa that the film had to be cut in half, because it was too long; he told them, "In that case, better cut it lengthwise." The film was released truncated at 166 minutes. See more »
[Kameda's cries in his sleep wakes himself up and others on the train, including Denkichi Akama]
That was some scream.
Forgive me. I was dreaming.
Dreaming? Sounded like you were being murdered.
I was - about to be shot. It's a recurring nightmare of mine. You see, I was convicted as a war criminal.
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And that's the central question that encompasses many aspects of film-making. We gather that it's all about what is and what is not, what seems and what reality is, if it can be taken for granted... but that the iconic question was raised by the appearance of a spectrum speaks another truth about cinema: it's about death as much as it's about life.
It's about death in the sense that we're watching a present that is no more and the older a film gets, the fuller of ghosts the screen is. It's also about death because fiction isn't reality in the first place. We learn about life through a ghostly present called fiction, or a living death in motion, that's the first truth. And like life, "The Idiot" opens with a scream, a seminal scream tracing the invisible frontier between life and death. It's upon that screaming truth that "The Idiot" opens in an overcrowded train where passengers are sleeping.
Kameda (Masayuki Mori) shares with Akama (Toshiro Mifune) the nightmare he just had, a dream-like flashback of the execution from which he barely escaped. After that episode where he literally saw the ghost of death coming to seize him, he made a tacit pact with destiny: anything carrying life would be instantly precious, from the dog he threw stones at as a kid to any human being, everyone was worthy of his goodness. But because of the shell shock and the war-trauma, Kameda spent time in an asylum, and his dementia was translated into an uglier word: idiot, a verbal leitmotif with the same resonance as 'stupid' in "Forrest Gump".
Kurosawa adapted Dostoyevsky's famous novel changing its Imperial Russian setting to post-war Japan. He was perhaps one of his biggest fans, considering him the most truthful author when it came to paint humanity. And indeed, you can see another truth in Kameda's behavior: he's a good person, not candid or naïve, but good because he learned to fear death, it's the awareness of his mortality that forged his goodness. Goodness is at the core of being human, because what defines our condition is death and what should define it is being good. This good/dead duality turns Makeda into a zombie-figure, a ghost sleepwalking among humans.
Normal people are too stubbornly attached to life to realize that they miss its very point. And it's only until they look at themselves through Kameda's eyes, played with quiet intensity by Mori that they're too disarmed to toy with feelings. I never really liked staring at people in the eyes because I found it like obscenely undressing them. And it's true that the titular idiot while not doing anything except reading, speaking or being present, allow these people to unmask their real selves. In a way, he is like a living metaphor of the camera, the threshold between the living and the seeming, a trigger to people's honesty.
I mentioned Forrest Gump, but the idiot can be also compared to Peter Sellers in "Being There" where his candidness was mistaken for profundity. In the case of Kameda, there is a genuine perceptiveness in his eyes, capable to see beyond the barriers of reputation or social bearings, but that capability backfires at him because you just can't idealize everyone without hurting some. Kurosawa's movies have always been about people who could 'look' but being a passive observer was only one step before action, there was no meaningless look. In "The Idiot", looking is active by essence and meaningful by necessity, not just for the observer.
Indeed, it all starts with Akama showing a picture of Taeko (Setsuko Hara) a woman he's literally buying from a "benefactor" who's literally auctioning her, Kayama played by the baby-faced Minoru Chiaki is also interested to buy her for a lesser dowry. When Kameda sees the picture of Taeko, it's not just love but truth at first sight, he can't see the whole thing, until a birthday party where he reveals with a sharp candor the amount of humanity he can read in Taeko, connecting it to the same fearful look he saw in a man who was executed. Taeko is so fascinated by the man she asks him if she should marry Kayama.
Later in the film, the triangular love has evolved, the rivalry isn't between Akama and Makeda but between Taeko and Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga) the daughter of Kameda's host played by Takashi Shimura. The two women love the same man, a situation that is likely to have two collateral damages and speaks another truth about life: the intentions no matter how good they are carry inevitable bad effects and vice versa. And Makeda's ambiguous relationship with Akama (Mifune has rarely been as intense... and sexy) reminds of their previous confrontation in "Rashomon", two men with two versions of the same story, each one living in his own fantasy or dream-like vision of life, each one driven mad because of truth.
Dreams or alternate realities are often present in Kurosawa's oeuvre, maybe to better preserve us from the painful truth as if goodness was too unbearable. The film is set in a cold wintery town, covered by snow, where people are too struck by coldness to act naturally, or during a carnival or a fancy reception where everyone plays a role and only one person stays the same, the man without a personality, a persona, a mask. He's the man who affect personalities, allowing them to transcend their condition, encouraging a woman with a reputation to emancipate herself, a crook to apologize and the weakly Mayaka to renounce money.
Every scene is staged with an opposition between passive liveliness and active inertia, reminding of that transcendent power of the camera, a frontier between life and death, dream and reality. The film speaks so many truths (a word I used a lot) maybe at the risk of being overlong, but it carries an irresistible poetry of its own.
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