In Kurosawa's late work, men and women alike are perceived as victims. Kurosawa has always accepted the bushidõ dichotomy - the choice between duty and love. To live is the motif of No Regrets for Our Youth, and it expresses in many of Kurosawa's films the necessity to choose between love between man and woman and love of humanity (Joan Mellen in Goodwin, p. 105).
[P]eople are subject to what is called destiny. This destiny lies not so much in their environment or their position in life as within their individual personality as it adapts to that environment and that position.
(Kurosawa in Prince, p. 97)
It seems that a critical point in the film comes when Yukie has the conversation with her father in her room while she is hastily packing to leave home. She wants to leave Kyoto and go up to Tokyo. She is "bored" with life, she tells us. She is disgusted with her life; it lacks solidity, it lacks the excitement and adventure that might come from political engagement. She tells her father,
"I want to live. I want to start my life over again. I want to go out into the world and find out about life."
"The world is not a garden," he replies. "Life is not as simple as you may think."
"I feel like I am slowly dying. I am not living. I want to find meaning in life. I want to live." This is Yukie's response. She wants to live, as the existentialists would say, with authenticity. She wants to do something real, something meaningful. As Yukie tells Noge later, when she sees him again after a 3-year hiatus, she has changed jods three times since she came to Tokyo, because her jobs have just been a way to put food on her table. They meant little to her. "I want something, some work, into which I can throw my entire self, my body and my soul. That's the kind of work I want." Noge turns away mumbling that this is not an easy thing to find, although he knows that he has such work, work with a initiative that is seeking a way to find a peaceful solution to the "China Problem" so Japan could avert a tragic war.
For fans of Kurosawa's great film, Ikiru (To Live), one can see the genesis of some of the ideas about the need to find meaning and purpose in life which drive that film.
Back to Yukie's departure from her home, her father tells her that if she is determined, she must go. It is worth it. But, he cautions her,
"You take responsibility for what you do. If it's freedom you want, you must fight for it. Freedom requires sacrifice and struggle." (Or something like this. I don't have the exact lines.)
Is this the primary message Kurosawa wants his 1946 audience to think about, men and women alike? Democracy isn't just a matter of mouthing words or doing something trendy; it involves commitment and sacrifice. This, apparently, is they key to living a life with no regrets.
In John Dower's Embracing Defeat, he writes about Maruyama Masao's notion of a "community of remorse" to characterize intellectuals who experienced "a joyous feeling of hope for the future mixed with deep regret for the past." (234) Perhaps Kurosawa was expressing his kinship if not membership in this kind of community of remorse because he titled his film "No Regrets," and has his character's reciting a mantra about wanting to live a life without regrets. But he and other intellectuals, artists and social activists must experience their fair share of regret for not being able to do more to stand up against the state, to resist the push toward militarism, aggression and war. To stand up for freedom and liberty when things get rough, this is difficult; few Japanese managed to do it in the 1930s.
Kurosawa's central character is a woman, Yukie, who in the beginning is portrayed as a flightly, impulsive, spoiled bourgeois woman who eventually learns the hard way the lesson her father tried to teach her: freedom requires both sacrifice and responsibility. The individual must be free and autonomous: an historical agent who can act for herself and for her community. But this freedom comes with a price; sacrifices must be made, hardship smust ber endured and there must be serious struggle in order to achieve true, authentic freedom or democracy.
Dower also writes about the role of Marxism in shaping the postwar discourse on democracy and freedom. Kurosawa chose to base his story around a real historical incident in which a professor was drummed out to Kyoto Universisty for his supposedly Marxist views. In the early part of the film, Noge is depicted as being considerably more left than Yukie's father, Professor Yagihara. Noge disparages the professors as naive and too easily duped. He speaks of the need to "struggle" and of going underground once the students and faculty are defeated by the Minister of Education and his businessmen allies in the zaibatsu. But what ideology does Noge subscribe to exactly? Is he a Marxist? A member of the underground Japan Communist Party? The film leaves this vague. In Tokyo, Noge is part of the East Asia Problems Research Institute and, according to Itokawa, his work is relied on by businessmen and government policy makers. But he is apparently secretly pursuing another project which is a plan to peacefully resolve the China Incident so Japan did not have to continue to wage a war of aggression in China. But, again, we know little about this or with whom he might be working on this project. We only hear that ten years from now, the world will thank Noge and realize that he was a true hero and patriot. And this happens as Professor Yagihara formally recognizes Noge when he returns to the university to resume his teaching duties. He hopes that there are many more Noges sitting out there in the audience listening to his sorrowful words of praise for this man who paid with his life for the freedoms that the end of the war restored. Japan needs more Noges, more men and women who live their lives with courage and determination and are willing to make the sacrifices that freedom requires.
See Vicent Canby's discussion from the NYT:
Because of the passage of time, the Kurosawa movie operates on several levels that didn't exist at the time it was produced. There's not a frame of this film that is not informed by our awareness of the body of work that the then comparatively young (36) director would go on to create. Then, too, one is acutely conscious of the conditions under which ''No Regrets for Our Youth'' was made.
In 1946, the Japanese film industry was under the close scrutiny of the American military occupation forces and, like Japan itself, was struggling to make some sense of the catastrophic war that had just been lost and to find some psychological as well as economic identity.
The story of ''No Regrets for Our Youth'' is just the sort of thing that would have appealed to the people at the Allied headquarters in Tokyo (who were so fearful of militarism that even samurai films were discouraged). Its subject is the struggle of a small group of freedomloving intellectuals against the fascist militarists who led Japan into Manchuria and China in the 30's and finally into war with the United States in 1941.
To Japanese critics and audiences in 1946, ''No Regrets for Our Youth'' might well have looked like hindsight of the most opportunistic sort. Yet the film's continuing impact says more about the force of the Kurosawa talent than it does about the film's politics, which could have been learned at Stanley Kramer's knee. The performances are rather simple and uncomplicated, unlike the film itself, which, in telling a heroic story, also manages to raise some disturbing questions about the nature of a democracy imported from the West along with swing music, short skirts and Coca-Cola.
This is not to underrate the drama, which is principally about the emotional liberation of one pretty, spoiled young woman, but to emphasize that Mr. Kurosawa is incapable of making anything as simple as a straight propaganda film.
From the Criterion Collection materials:
NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH: RECOVERY EFFORT
As Japan was coming out of World War II, Akira Kurosawa was coming into his own as a filmmaker. And this was hardly a coincidence: though he had made a name for himself as a promising popular craftsman at Toho Studios during the war, Kurosawa later said he didn’t feel he could express himself as an artist until the censorship restrictions of that era had been lifted and he could take the new Japan as his subject. Devastated by the human and material losses of the war and facing widespread homelessness and economic collapse, the now Allied-occupied Japan became the canvas on which this trained painter would make his mark as a filmmaker.
For Kurosawa, social commitment and visual artistry would always go hand in hand, although this particular phase of his career, from right after the war until the mid-fifties, would see him tackling more directly the pressing issues of contemporary Japanese life than ever again. In between 1946’s No Regrets for Our Youth and 1955’s I Live in Fear, Kurosawa would become an international sensation, all the while creating a body of work that dealt, either straight-forwardly or through metaphor, with the struggles of his fellow citizens.
All of Kurosawa’s wartime films were affected by censorship, no matter the content—from personal projects like his masterful debut, Sanshiro Sugata (1943), a classically heroic master-pupil narrative, to assignments such as the overt propaganda film The Most Beautiful (1944), about women helping the war effort. Postwar American occupying forces had their own review board, of course, but its far-less-restrictive guidelines, encouraging the glorification of democracy and freedom, were much more suited to Kurosawa’s political ideas. His first postwar project for Toho was indeed a great fit in this regard: a narrative of national collapse and recovery, No Regrets for Our Youth is a sweeping tale of antinationalist revolt whose central quote, “there is sacrifice in the struggle for freedom,” becomes its guiding principle.
Opening idyllically, with a joyous band of college students whistling along a riverbank as they climb a hill that overlooks Kyoto University, the “garden of freedom,” No Regrets for Our Youth stands out among Kurosawa’s films of the period in beginning before the devastations of war—in the peace and prosperity of early 1930s Japan. And alone in Kurosawa’s body of work, this film aligns itself with the point of view of a female protagonist: Yukie, played by the brilliantly expressive Setsuko Hara. Moving from bourgeois complacency to social activism, Yukie—the daughter of a conservative university professor and eventual wife of one of his students, an anti-imperial intellectual from a peasant family—is the film’s emotional anchor, guiding us through the political and cultural turmoil of Japan from 1933 to 1945.
No Regrets for Our Youth was shot during a series of workers’ strikes at Toho, at a time when the left was resurgent in Japan. And the film’s glorification of radical activism and peasant workers (with low-angle shots evocative of the socialist realism of Alexander Dovzhenko) reflects both Kurosawa’s political spirit and Japan’s newfound social freedom—a multifaceted concept that Kurosawa would continue to examine in the decade to come.
“Flowers on the knoll, blazing crimson red
Plants along the river, a bright, glowing green
I sigh in delight at the flowers of Kyoto
The moon rising high above Mount Yoshida”
Yukie is the daughter of Professor Yagihara of Kyoto University. She spends her days with old Yagihara’s students, prancing in the fields and streams around the capital, singing songs like the one above. In 1933 the students of Kyoto University feel compelled to react to state attempts to suppress academic freedom. They appeal to Yagihara, who was once a bit of a romantic revolutionary, but he is old, tenured and doesn’t think it wise for his students to get themselves expelled by demonstration. A handful of riots settle the issue. Many students and professors are given the boot and some arrested, including Ryukichi Noge, probably the most intelligent and single-minded of the bunch. Yukie won’t admit to herself that she’s in love with him.
The screenplay is rather weak. The idiom ‘academic freedom’ is bandied about as if it’s something elemental for the characters, possessing a necessity and potency like water. If the students feel pressed to give throat to their revolutionary impulse, it’s always a cry for ‘academic freedom’. It’s even humorously mirrored in the newspapers, a headline reading something like “Academic Freedom Crushed” following the riots. Kurosawa claims the script was rewritten against his will, as the film was produced between the two great Toho strikes of 1946, but as for how the original and the finished product differ, who can say? Playwright Eijirô Hisaita wrote the original script, and he would go on to help write Kurosawa’s The Idiot, The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low. The gist of this is imperial Japan, gearing for war and closing the doors and windows to creative and intellectual outlets that might undermine the planned hegemony of Southeast Asia.
What’s strong is the acting, particularly from postwar beauty Setsuko Hara as Yukie and Toho regular Susumu Fujita as Ryukichi Noge. Setsuko successfully embodies a character who evolves: from a mercurial object of worship in her youth to a fragile married woman and finally to a noble ascetic. Not only does Yukie age credibly over the course of thirteen years, but Setsuko’s physiognomy changes in accompaniment: her outer ferocity gives way to an uncertain sensitivity, but by film’s end there is a strength and moral resolve that glows in her aspect. Noge is underplayed deftly by Susumu Fujita, who seems capable of changing his appearance with little effort. Simply by removing his glasses and school uniform Noge ages ten years. His bittersweet romance with Yukie is played with restraint; neither of them seems to be saying what they mean. Noge, through the realization that his mortal clock is ticking, wishes to say everything and nothing—nothing because death looms. And Yukie doesn’t wish to acknowledge that her Eden is a false one. She knows full well that the danger of living with Noge is what drew her to him yet she doesn’t want him to realize that she understands the total aspect of his work. The pathos of this doomed relationship is well-depicted by all.
Unfortunately, much of the film is buoyed by sentimental sobs, as if the sight of tears in a character’s face is enough to induce them in the audience. Probably another result of script conflicts. Things get more interesting when Yukie resolves to visit Noge’s parents after his death. Ostensibly she’s there to bring them his ashes, but her real intention is to make them understand the gravity of their son’s life and of his death as she now understands it. She earns their respect gradually through toil in the rice fields, in spite of the taunts of “traitor” and “spy” hurled at her repeatedly by the neighboring children. These taunts culminate in the total decimation of the Noges’ rice fields shortly before harvest. Kurosawa has definitely borrowed from the Soviet model here for Yukie (recalling Eisenstein’s Marfa Latkina from Staroye i novoye aka Old and New) as well as conforming to the Soviet realist demand for selfless, collective toil. Yukie dusts her stepparents off as well as herself and starts all over again.
When she returns home to Kyoto she is a changed woman. She recalls her University days with fondness, recalls a time of innocence before the weight of the world and the war changed her generation forever. In revisiting the fields and streams a group of students pass by singing her old school song and Kurosawa gives us a nice bit of montage from the film’s beginning. Then the final shot and perhaps the film’s best has Yukie riding a truck into the sunset, arm-in-arm with farmers who once were a step below her station. Kurosawa’s individualist impulse would grow in the years to come, but Yukie too is a character that acts upon her native instincts, choosing the hard life and its rewards over the one projected for her. She undergoes a process of illumination, of self-discovery, perhaps the principle theme of all the themes of Kurosawa’s cinema.
"Waga Seishun ni Kuinashi" (No Regrets for Our Youth) is more interesting as a phenomenon than enjoyable as a film. What makes it interesting:
(1) Released in 1946, tt is arguably the first major film directed by Akira Kurosawa. It is, without doubt, his first postwar movie, and
(2) one of the first Japanese movies passing the censors of the US ("Allied") occupation of Japan, which is all the more striking, because,
(3) it celebrates a leftist opponent of militarism and fascism during the early 1930s. That the MacArthur regime permitted commemoration of what appears to be (but is named as) a communist is outright startling.
(4) The movie is the closest to be an autobiographical film by Kurosawa (up until his last, Madadayo). Kurosawa was a leftist opponent of the fascist militarism of the 1930s, and shocked his parents by first becoming an art student and then undertaking an entry-level job in the film industry. (The autobiographical component is limited in that the movie focuses on a female student who shocks everyone by going to work as a peasant with the parents after he is killed in police custody.)
(5) The film focuses on a woman, unlike any other Kurosawa film.
(6) The actress in the lead role is Hara Setusko , closely associated (by appearing in many movies directed by) Ozu (though also memorable in Kurosawa's adaptation of The Idiot). The mother-in-law is also played by Ozu regular Sugimura Haruko. (And, although the camerawork is fluid, many shots are from angles even lower than Ozu's camera setup.)
(7) Shimura Takashi was already in the Kurosawa repertory company (and in many, many other Kurosawa movies, with the biggest parts being in "Ikiru," "The Drunken Angel," and "Seven Samurai").
(8) The influence of prewar Soviet cinema, particularly Eisensteinian montage and treatment of seething crowds, is very obvious, along with some Dovzhenko agrarian romanticism (particularly characters lying down, looking at the sky, and the blurred farm labor sequences, especillay Yukie staggering along carrying a basket).
The DVD about which I originally epined had absurd and often unreadable subtitles over a poor print. The Criterion "Postwar Kurosawa" Eclipse release remedied these two problmes. The remaining one, which is Kurosawa's fault, is that the first hour is boring: very talky with only a few interesting visual touches (the piano playing and the montages of Yukie (Hara) and of Tokyo, when she moves there. *Yea, yeah, I'll provide some plot summary eventually...)
It was an effort of will to get through the first hour—in which idealistic young students are shocked when Yukie's father is not allowed to lecture any more at their university (ca. 1933 Kyoto), and there is a triangular relationship between Yukie and two of the students (who look like cadets in their uniforms). Yet another strangeness of the subtitles is that Noge, the bespectacled zealot (played by Fujita Susumu), and Itokawa, the more pragmatic (and eventually mustachioed) suitor of Yuki and friend of Noge (played by Kôno Akitake) are called "Wild" and "Hun."
Noge comes to dinner with Itokawa, Yukie, and his parents (after the school has been shut down altogether and the student groups banned) and says he is going off to China (the just-conquered Manchuria). Yukie has something of a mad scene and decides to move to Tokyo. After the passage of a few years, she runs into Itokawa and meets Noge again. Both are successful in financial institutions of some sort. Yukie is a sort of economic analyst.
After they marry, Itokawa is seized in a restaurant by Police Commissioner "Poison Strawberry" Dokuichigo (Shimura). This and the following scenes of Dokuichigo sneering (Shimura was so good at that!) and interrogating Yukie bring the movie to life (very fraught life, but not longer boring).
Noge dies (offscreen) in police custody and is posthumously branded as being a spy. Yukie is released, plays the piano in obvious hysteria, and decides to go live with Noge's parents, peasants whom she has never met. They are, not surprisingly, discomfited to have a city girl on their hands, but Yukie throws herself into tilling the fields in ways that would have made Maoists happy when they emptied the universities to "re-educate" students during the 1960s.
Hara is impressive in playing the young woman determined to make herself a model peasant daughter-in-law. The project seems crazy to me, but apparently seemed virtuous to Japanese. It is definitely cinematic and includes some signature Kurosawa scenes of slogging through the mud and heavy rain...
In a rushed coda after Japan loses the war, Noge and Yukie's father are rehabilitated and honored. Yukie, both in the fields, and restored to upper middle-class life, regularly repeats Noge's mantra "No regrets in my life, no regrets whatsoever"—which also seems to me borderline crazy, in that he was tortured to death and Yukie suffered greatly as the wife of a much-maligned "spy" (etc.!).
Hara is convincing aging some twenty years, slogging through the rice paddies and destroying her pianist hands. She could do much more than Ozu ever asked her to do! Both Yukie and Noge anticipate the long line of Kurosawa individualists (often embodied by Mifune Toshiro), refusing to do what others expect them to do.
For me, the first great Kurosawa movie is "Drunken Angel" (1948), which teamed Shimura and Kurosawa (as, respectively, a slum doctor and a tubercular, alcoholic gangster). It also had much social commentary about it (and sympathy for slum-dwellers trying to get along). There are some striking scenes and sequences in the second hour of "No Regrets," but getting that far is a daunting challenge, and the bewilderment induced by the titles recurs (though there are long stretches of working the fields with no talk to mangle in translation in that last third of the movie).
Kurosawa told Donald Richie that the story of Noge was inspired by a real-life case (Ozaki Hidemi), but that he was asked to leave the subject to a younger director, so had to substitute the second half. This is disconcerting in that I think the second half is much the better one! (The fired professor is based on the firing of Takikawa Yukitoki from the University of Kyoto faculty in 1933, and Ozaki was a student of Professor Takikawa, outraged by his dismissal.)
Less disconcerting is Kurosawa's memory that he "believed that the only way for Japan to make a new start was to begin respecting the 'self' [instead of the usual submission to expectations and the group/family). "I wanted to show a woman who did just that." In this, he definitely succeeded (though I vigorously dissent from Richie's claim that the movie is "perfect"). Kurosawa also told Richie that "it was only here and in 'Rashomon' that I ever fairly and fully portrayed a woman... [one who] lived by and was true to her feelings." As Richie notes, Kuorsawa showed this "sternly and uncompromisingly."
In addition to the longer-ago historical movies Kurosawa went on to direct (Rashômon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Red Beard, Kagemusha, Ran), Kurosawa made a number of socially conscious movies about postwar Japan, of which my favorites Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, Ikiru, High and the Low; the available DVD of The Bad Sleep Well is plagued with transfer and subtitle problems). I have also recommended the documentary biography Kurosawa.
ï¿½2006, Stephen O. Murray