After World War II, the Allied Occupation set a few rules in place for the Japanese film industry. No movies that celebrated feudalism or Japan’s recent military adventurism, or that contained elements that were critical of the Occupation were the basic rules. For Kurosawa it must have been an artistic godsend as his own politics coincided with the main goals of establishing Japan as a peaceful democracy. Finally Kurosawa could make exactly the movies he wanted to make.
That was the plan anyways. Kurosawa and Eijiro Hisaita had quickly developed a script around the true story of Hidemi Ozaki, a leftist who was executed in 1944 for alleged espionage, and the Kyoto student protests of 1933 following the forced resignation of Professor Yukitoki Takikawa by the military. Unfortunately, director Kiyoshi Kusuda had a similar script and there was conflict in the studio over making two similar films. Kurosawa explained that the two directors would make very different films from similar scripts. Kurosawa also claimed, unwisely, that he would make the better film. The latter claim didn’t go over well and Kurosawa was the one forced to change his script.
Perhaps it’s fortunate because No Regrets for Our Youth is one of the most singular movies of Kurosawa’s career. It has a large sweep of time, covering over a decade of
Japan’s recent history, which is unlike most of Kurosawa’s work which tends to concentrate on a specific time and incident. More than any other Kurosawa film it has a female protagonist at the dead center of the film and her journey and growth is the primary focus on the film, even above the politics.
Kurosawa opens the film in 1933. A group of students are enjoying a gorgeous day in the hills that overlook Kyoto University. There’s still a life full of hope for these young men and women. Yukie (Setsuko Hara), the spoiled young daughter of Professor Yagahara (Denjiro Okochi) even takes the time to make fun of a peasant showing her lack of concern or understanding. Nothing seems to trouble Yukie. Yukie and the students sing songs celebrating Kyoto and are having a grand time.
Yukie has clearly smitten two student leaders Noge (Susumu Fujita) and Itokawa (Akitake Kono) although it’s clear that she only really reciprocates Noge’s feelings. Even then it’s hard to say that she’s in love as much as she enjoys being chased by the boys, there’s a terrific sequence of tracking shots that makes that point literally, just that she enjoys being
chased by Noge most of all.
The ideal day can’t last forever as it’s interrupted by gunfire by the military troops practicing. Noge denounces the signs of rising fascism but Yukie finds it exciting and skips away to see what’s happening only to find a wounded soldier. The future under the military isn’t going to be all parades; there will be real human costs.
This is all in the first seven minutes of the movie. It’s a marvel of efficiency as we learn what we need to know about the characters with very little exposition. And it sets up the larger themes and ideas of the film. The sweep of history and rise of fascism as seen on how it impacts the individual.
It’s the last idyllic day for awhile. Professor Yagahira soon finds himself fired from the university for speaking out against the Manchuria Incident, used as a pretext for a land grab in Asia, and the students riot and protest as a result. Noge becomes one of the leaders of the students, preaching an anti-militarism message, while Yukie just finds the whole thing an annoyance. It’s at this point that Noge chooses to shatter Yukie’s illusions about herself which sets off her character arc. Noge leaves Yukie to her piano playing, technically proficient but without understanding or nuance, and Yukie finds that Itokawa kowtows to her much too easily for any satisfaction.
Setsuko Hara is terrific throughout the movie. Her face is expressive and she hardly needs dialogue. She’s a flat out star. In addition to Kurosawa, with whom she’ll work again in The Idiot, Hara worked with Naruse and most especially Yasujiro Ozu with whom she’s most associated. Hara was featured in six of Ozu’s movies including Late Spring, Early Summer, and Tokyo Story. Upon Ozu’s death in 1963, Hara quit acting at the age of 43 and has lead a Garbo-like life of privacy since. It’s a shame since she was a world class talent and must certainly have a lot of insight into the careers of some of Japan’s most acclaimed directors.
Kurosawa makes one break from the intimate character drama and that’s to show the protests by the students and subsequent crackdown by the fascists. It’s a swift series of montages and small scenes which is frankly reminiscent of the 1960s. It’s exciting filmmaking. His use of horses during the climax is notable of being a precursor of using horses in close proximity to a mass of people in Seven Samurai showing the power of the animal in relation to the vulnerability of people.
In response to the crackdown, Itokawa quits the movement at the urging of his mother to fulfill the family dream of having her son finish college and being able to support the family. Itokawa isn’t necessarily a villain, as much as someone who bends to power around him. Noge doesn’t quit and is arrested.
The first major time jump occurs as the story moves from 1933 to 1938. Yukie is still upset about the events of 1933, Kurosawa uses her flower arranging as a visual metaphor. Itokawa, now a prosecutor, has arranged for Noge’s release and they visit the Yagahara household. Noge is apparently a shadow of his former self and Yukie first understands the power of the state.
Professor Yagahara isn’t so sure about Noge’s changed ways. But, regardless, Yukie makes the first break from the safety of her bourgeois home and heads to Tokyo to make a life of her own. No politics, no Itokawa, and no Noge.
Kurosawa manages to boil down a large statement on “the cost of totalitarianism” into a personal story. And that’s perhaps the biggest triumph of the film. It’s not abstract. It doesn’t rely on shock effects. It just tells a personal story with larger meaning. It seems simple in Kurosawa’s hands, but there are any number of well meaning directors that have fumbled the same approach. In many ways, No Regrets for Our Youth is the first step towards Rashomon and Ikiru.
Again the film skips ahead to 1941 and Itokawa encounters Yukie in Tokyo. Itokawa is now married and settled into the bureaucracy and Yukie is pretty much going through a string of jobs. Flower arranging and piano playing don’t pay the bills, and the common duties
of a clerk don’t engage her. She’s directionless. Itokawa mentions that Noge hasn’t given up his leftish ways and is writing critical essays on the regime and Yukie is drawn back to the strong man she knew. Reluctantly at first, there’s a series of scenes with differing seasons in the background as she stands outside his office, but eventually she’s reunited with Noge.
This part is Susumu Fujita’s chance to shine. He’s been mostly a symbol so far, but he gets fleshed out as a person. Fujita doesn’t have the inner conflict that Toshiro Mifune is often able to bring to the screen, but what he has is an easy likability and conviction. Noge’s fully aware that any time he can spend with Yukie is likely temporary before the authorities finally set about to silence him, but he’s fully committed to his cause of trying to halt Japan’s imperialist aims. And he’s fully in love with Yukie. He’s not about compromise but living life with “no regrets” by doing what he believes is right.
At this point, Yukie joins him as his wife. A step in her transformation to someone willing to sacrifice. It’s a mixture of joy and fear. Noge even lets her into his own private fears as he worries about what will happen to his parents, sharing a photo of them with Yukie.
And it is temporary. Noge sets out to expose the military’s plans and is soon arrested. Yukie is imprisoned, her first direct mistreatment by the authorities. She even gets a literal slap across the face in the process. And learns that all Noge’s plans were for nothing with Japan declaring war in December 1941.
She’s soon released though. Professor Yagihara tries to represent Noge only to learn that he “died” in his cell leaving Yukie a widow. Noge’s parents don’t even want to pick up his remains. Yukie sets out to restore Noge’s memory to his parents and returns Noge’s ashes. Only to have to bury the ashes in the night due to the scandal and the peasants’ reaction to having the parents of a “spy” in their midst.
Noge’s parents are immediately distrustful of Yukie. They’re in hiding, but still have to get the rice crop in. Yukie, hoping to prove herself takes part in the grueling work of rice planting, which adds some context to Seven Samurai, and she is transformed from a bourgeoisie city girl in an inappropriate silk blouse into a farmer.
There are a couple of things that are notable about this sequence. Kurosawa sells the grueling work and shows how hard it is to change in a very literal fashion. The work is
glorified in several aspects, Kurosawa often chooses a low angle ala Citizen Kane or Russian cinema to show giant figures hewing at the earth which gives Yukie a heroic stature. However, Kurosawa glorifies the individual characters not the farmers as a class, as the farmers are shown to buy into the government propaganda and to be needlessly petty.
Yukie wins over Noge’s parents through her hard work and is accepted as their son’s wife. She’s transformed from a petty schoolgirl into a brave, stalwart farmer. And in her own way, a brave, social activist refusing to live her life in fear or with regrets.
Most films these days have some sort of character arc, but Yukie’s transformation is remarkable in its completeness. It’s hard to overstate just how remarkable Setsuko Hara’s performance is. She’s completely believable at every step of her journey into being a better, stronger human being. Given Kurosawa’s upbringing as the son of a teacher and his leftist politics, it’s easy to speculate that there’s a lot of Kurosawa himself in Yukie, just with his activism channeled in different directions.
Of course, Japan’s militarists are defeated and Yukie returns briefly to her childhood home. Now that she’s finally developed an understanding of the world and can perhaps interpret music with more than mechanical precision, in a last irony she states that the physical toil has left her hands unsuitable for the piano.
Yukie now views her mission to help better the lives of the rural farmers. That’s how she’s going to assist in Japan’s rebuilding. She’s rebuilt her life to one of self respecting sufficiency and now can turn outward once again. It’s Kurosawa’s statement on what Japan should do now. Start over from the bottom and work up again. Yukie still has sadness over the loss of Noge, but she has a direction and no regrets.
There are plenty of debates over what’s a major work of Kurosawa’s and what’s a minor work. To me Sanshiro Sugata was his first major work and No Regrets for Our Youth is his second. If it’s not quite a masterpiece, it’s an excellent film that deserves wider viewership than the obscure position it’s found itself in to date. It’s perhaps understandable from a commercial standpoint that an early Kurosawa film without Toshiro Mifune and concerned with Japanese politics of the 1930s and 1940s might be a tough sell, but it’s a remarkable movie and a major statement of Kurosawa’s social views.
As Kurosawa’s first post-war film it sets a high standard. His next film is a more contemporary film taking a look at the difficulties of Japan following the war. A film not without its own ambitions.
Next Month: ONE WONDERFUL SUNDAY (1947)