Akira Kurosawa: No Regrets For Our Youth (1946) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Akira Kurosawa: No Regrets For Our Youth (1946)

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For the last four weeks we’ve been watching Akira Kurosawa fumble his way through genre period pieces with kooky action, endless parades of hollow laughter, and semi-transparent attempts at satire.  Some of it was good, most of it was ok, and I don’t think either of us have fully recoiled from the forced pleasantry of The Most Beautiful.  It hasn’t been a hard few weeks, but I have been fighting off disappointment after seeing Kurosawa set the bar high, at least in terms of entertainment and style, with Sanshiro Sugata Part 1.

Now I can safely say, as you alluded to last week, that Kurosawa has “arrived”.  No Regrets For Our Youth is a great film, filled with the kind of iconic and turbulent imagery I came to expect from Kurosawa in my earlier years, and with no shy eye toward the hardships of Japan during the war.  This is the first time I felt Kurosawa really relax behind the camera.

There’s none of the brashness of the first Sanshiro film or the constrained budgetary restrictions of The Men Who Tread On Tiger’s Tail.  He still had the postwar occupation government to deal with, but there is no sign of a man rushing to prove anything.  Instead he opens with a scene that breathes life into and informs the rest of the film and its philosophy.

The plot concerns itself with the fifteen year period after The Manchurian Incident which helped spark Japan’s invasion of China.  We meet our three young protagonists in a sunny field, right when the full knowledge of what is to come is hitting each one of them in different ways.  Yukie (Setsuko Hara) is the daughter of a prominent professor recently ousted from his teaching position because of his leftist views on the rise of fascism in his country.  Politically Yukie plays it fairly safe, but is courted by the extreme and anti-war Noge (Susumu Fujita) and Itokawa (Akitake Kono).  Noge is all fire with no real sign of fading away, leading protests and student charges against the growing nationalist movement.  Itokawa is his direct opposite, wanting to play it safe throughout the turbulent times and making sure to keep his head well above water.

I love the ways Kurosawa lets you know of these details in the opening scenes.  It becomes clear that the film is all about the transience of youth and the completely foolishness of idealism during that time.  Sure, it’s not exactly the freshest ingredient in the cinematic pot, but Kurosawa evokes so many tactile memories during those wordless opening moments.  The walk through the field is lovingly bright, showing each flower rub on Yukie and Noge, watching beams of sunlight dance on their faces as the trees slowly sway.  Kurosawa is showing us how they remember this past, it’s all physical sensation and only occasional sound, and when the time comes to finally speak it is Yukie who mentions how wonderful everything feels.Kurosawa, again without words, sets up the dynamic of the love triangle in a single sequence of the three crossing a stream.  Yukie is hesitant, despite the presence of two men willing to help her through, but it is Noge who is willing to get his feet wet to help her over.  Again, not the most original sentiment, but it shows a director far more willing to let his visuals speak for themselves.  Kurosawa wastes not a minute showing the way the sun sparkles on the water, the slow fade to the field of flowers, and the palpable thump as they all hit the ground.  It’s a beautiful opening.

It’s not all romanticism and beauty in the film though.  Kurosawa takes care to make sure we are present of the shadows creeping in on their life.  His approach reminded me of a more optimistic representation than, say, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.  Their shadows lengthen over time, showing these moments are doomed to fade, but it rarely lasts long.  My favorite instance is in one of the final shots showing a much older Yukie with the shadow of all that has happened covering her entire body.  The one act of defiance that follows erases the shadow almost entirely.  She may grow older, but no one should regret their age or their youth.

The passage of time is played with extensively through a number of fun visual cues.  Sometimes you can see how much time has passed by looking at the goods available in a store.  Other times it’s the brightening or dimming of flowers.  All of this is reflective of Yukie’s mood, as we spend all our time with her and are clearly seeing what her reality of Japan is.

This is the first film where Kurosawa does not hide from that reality.  In that familiar opening text crawl he outright condemns the government for the deceitful nature of the Manchurian Incident that led them to start the war with China.  He shows other government officials in a shady light, and it becomes clear the sight of a well-tailored suit is the sign of an enemy.  Again, something he has done before, but not with this level of shadowy menace.  Takashi Shimura, who at this point has been in every film of Kurosawa’s as a sturdy background player, absolutely owns his few moments onscreen by playing with those shadows in smoke and with a sadistic grimace.

There is quite a bit more I love about the film, but I would love to get your initial reaction before going any further.No Regrets for Our Youth is better than all the movies we've watched so far combined, and it mixes all the best elements from those films into a much more coherent, involving, and significant story: the visual inventiveness and playfulness of Sanshiro Sugata, the bleak reality of Sanshiro Sugata Pt. 2, a complex view of extremism only hinted at in Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, and I don't know, probably something from The Most Beautiful. The early sequence sets up the movie perfectly, with the many shots of the characters running through the trees evoking a dreamlike and nostalgic sense of youth as you mentioned, eventually broken by gunfire in the distance. The film at its heart is about the clash between idealism and the reality we are inevitably faced with, as represented through the decade-long evolution of its main character, Yukie. In this way, perhaps the film acts as a counterpoint to The Most Beautiful, which is about the clash between idealism and WHAT CLASH? IDEALISM!

What makes No Regrets for Our Youth so effective for me is the way it takes a perfectly evoked youthful idealism and observes its change into a steadfast but grounded devotion to personal ideals. There is a subtle but important difference, and Kurosawa teases it out carefully through a nuanced development of the central characters over various stages. When we first meet Yukie, Noge, and Itokawa, they speak in bold, sweeping statements about the war and politics. Their dialogue seems ripped straight from pamphlets passed out by impassioned student groups.

Yukie eventually becomes drawn to Noge's rebellious and ultimate devotion to the anti-war effort, seeing in him a fiery idealism that can't be calmed or controlled by her father, a professor fired for his leftist (though not quite so extreme) views. A bit later in the film, Yukie discovers that Noge, after being arrested for his anti-government activities, agreed to cooperate and join the military in return for parole, and her disappointment in this more practical compromising of his seemingly incorruptible values spawns the second act of the story. Noge's surrendering of his radical values crushes Yukie's view of him as a wild, untamed force, and consequently her adherence to romantic idealism. Almost in defiance of this disappointment, she decides to move to Tokyo to “see for [herself] what it means to be alive.” She sees the lives of those around her as a compromise that she's not willing to make.

Once in Tokyo, the three main characters meet up again, and a contrast is established between Itokawa and Noge that wonderfully illustrates how Yukie holds so steadfastly to her initial youthful idealism. Kurosawa shows Itokawa as one who has bent to the will of others (particularly his mother), though for good intentions. His safe and comfortable life is underscored by a sadness that bridges nostalgia for the past with an envy for Noge's current wild freedom, though this envy seems to stem more from the fact that he likes Yukie and she likes Noge than for a desire to lead Noge's lifestyle himself. The movie isn't as much like an episode of The OC as I'm making it sound.Here Kurosawa also exhibits his strongest visual storytelling yet, with two sequential scenes contrasting Itokawa and Noge, and their roles in Yukie's life. When she spends time with Itokawa after discovering that they are both living in Tokyo, it takes place as a mannered dinner with a glimpse of a dull section of the skyline in the background, and they are both on the same plane in the mid-ground looking straight at each other. It's a plain, clean shot giving us clear views of both characters and their surroundings. This is followed by a scene in Noge's apartment where Yukie has her back turned to us in the foreground while Noge stands in the middle ground, dressed like Itokawa but fitting his suit and the glasses better, framed by his apartment windows and a spectacular view of the skyline in the background. This shot is more dynamic, more exciting, and it powerfully establishes Noge as the image of exciting city life that mirrors the adventurous idealism Yukie craves.

This is followed by a moment where Yukie seems to be casting Noge's shadow on the wall as they talk about how one who “provokes the authorities” can't run and hide, but must simply wait through his daily life while embracing his fate. Equally striking is the contrast between Noge and Yukie once they are together in Tokyo — Noge embraces life and enjoys his freedom, close as it may be to an end, while Yukie's days are tinged with sadness over what she knows is to come. Noge is about living in the moment, whereas Yukie can't seem to accept a reality not matching her romanticized view of her life.

None of this is even touching the third act, in which Yukie's youthful idealism attached to a romantic notion of a specific individual is tested and transformed into an equally unshakeable devotion to doing good through her own actions. And what of the role of parents in the film, whose influences on the characters are so consistently important and evolving? What of the volumes this speaks to how Kurosawa must have felt as a young filmmaker inheriting a broken and dispirited Japan from the older and recently defeated fascistic regime? What of the fact that while these characters were living complex and interesting lives, the poor women from The Most Beautiful seemed to think things couldn't get any better than a rousing game of volleyball?Really, Kyle, we might as well stop kidding ourselves right here.  You and I are going to joke about volleyball to the very end.  Right up until Madadayo the conversation will come back to the forced idealism in that film and the way they batted that ball around.  Then we’ll stop playing coy, and it’s Top Gun all over again.

It’s destiny, really.

Recurring volleyball-based future nightmarescape aside, I think the third act is one of the most relevant in terms of Kurosawa capturing the sometimes epic feel of daily life.  But it also highlights an issue a lot of contemporary fans have had with his work.  I don’t know if I agree yet or not, but the topic of gender in his film becomes a lot more essential to the plot here.

That final act is filled with my favorite visual sequence in the film.  Yukie grinds herself out to the bone, slowly becoming dirtier and more pained every time she goes out to Noge’s parents’ field to continue harvesting rice.  Thematically this is a picture perfect example of any film literally portraying what it’s about without having to delve to thoroughly into subtext and interpretation.  We know this is after World War II, we know Kurosawa hated the former regime, and here he is showing a woman literally toiling in the fields of her predecessors to grow something new.  The final challenge is exquisite, as the relics of the past have ruined the field and the shadow over her looms larger than ever.  But she does not stay defeated for long, and light bursts onto the frame as she rips out the hateful signs and starts the work all over again.I absolutely love that sequence because it ties together everything you and I have discussed, but the denouement raises another interesting concern.  Yukie and Noge’s mother are talking after they have vanquished the spirit of the past, at least for the moment, and Yukie talks about the strength she will have in the future.  Noge’s mother responds that of course she’ll need that strength because a woman’s role is to take pain her whole life.

Query – is Kurosawa reflecting the sexism of or unconsciously reproducing the sexist submissive here?  I ask because one of the most common complaints I’ve seen of Kurosawa’s work is how he treats women.  We’re five films in, and while there are troubling analogies of what kind of work women are supposed to be able to do (remember, at most, 60% of a man’s), women have been a bit under represented but are not demeaned as we run into with our culture.  Now here’s Kurosawa’s best work to date, centering on a strong female lead that is among equals in terms of representation, and has more strength than anyone in the film without suffering needlessly.  She is tortured to be stronger, an unfortunate recurring theme when it comes to demeaning women in media, but this is one situation where it’s not exactly without historical precedence.

Personally, I don’t buy into the theory quite yet.  Women are not as broadly represented in Kurosawa’s films, but I don’t think the portrayal is any weaker, especially in this great film.

While Yukie constantly being told that she'll have to suffer may seem to confirm some sexist idea, I think there are two key points in the film that make a stronger case for the opposite. The first is that she chooses to suffer in the name of what she considers a greater good—helping Noge's parents and the rest of the villagers rebuild the town. Certainly the message could still be sexist even if the suffering is a result of her own choice (could even be more so, as this type of plotting could be used to encourage embracing a certain unjust role), but her choice comes not from a generally constructed situation applying specifically to a woman's role so much as one that emerges organically and believably from the rest of the film. Her naive idealism has given way to a determination to hold up her values by helping others, no matter the cost.

At the end of the movie, after the field sequence you describe, there is a scene where Yukie talks to her mother by the piano in their home. It is reminiscent of earlier scenes of her youth, but the way she regards the piano carefully instead of pluckily playing away shows her age—rather than immediate comforts and broad ideals, she now prefers to invest her energy in more difficult work that has actual, demonstrable consequence. Her mother tries to convince her to stay, saying that she hates to think of her toiling away in a field, but Yukie insists that this is what she needs to do. We can see here it isn't that her role is to suffer so much as it is to apply her strengths for a greater good—that she may have to suffer to do so and is accepting of that makes her even stronger.

This also works well as a mirror of the scene in the first act where she tells her father she needs to move to the city because the people she sees around her are “hardly alive at all.” In that scene she's a young girl who can no longer stand the thought of compromising her absolute ideals for what she sees as a mundane daily life; in this later scene she's a mature woman who knows better than to compromise her opportunity to do good for a comfortable, mundane daily life. Her zeal and commitment have remained steady, but she now understands how to root herself in action for a cause rather than nebulous ideas and plans.The second interesting thing related to the question of women's roles as portrayed by the movie is the point at which Yukie's idealism transforms into inspired action. Throughout the first two acts—during which time she is the pretty standard, romantic, idealistic, “oh Noge you're sooo cool” type of female character—her idealism is tied to a man, specifically her romanticized notion of that man. And then the brief happiness she does have during her taste of her idealized life with Noge is put into sharp contrast by her visit to his parents following his eventual arrest and death. The heedlessness with which he conducted his anti-establishment efforts—and the same rebelliousness Yukie so idealized—is shown to have had devastating effects on his parents. (That the older generation is simultaneously blamed for much of the sorrow and destruction at the end is an interesting complication that could warrant another entire discussion).

It's only after she has broken from her subservient life with Noge that she truly understands how to apply her ideals and develops a strength of will to do what needs to be done no matter the cost. The sequence where she goes to town despite Noge's mother telling her they only go out at night is incredibly effective in further demonstrating the transformation you note taking place in the field scenes. She is branded a spy for her association with Noge, the very thought of which in earlier scenes may have added an air of intrigue and romanticized danger to her life, but now she simply shrugs it off and bears it in order to do what she knows is right.

The film is remarkable in how it ultimately praises standing out from the group in the name of your own values, even while subtlety—though not entirely—criticizing the group of idealistic revolutionaries of which Noge is a part. It's as if he was trying to straddle the line between creating empathy for those who opposed the Japanese wartime regime—something the Allied occupying forces would no doubt have liked to see—while at the same time lightly condemning vast ideological revolt—something the occupying forces would likely also have been in favor of. I'm curious how the post-war political climate influenced his decisions, especially after reading that the script at one point was altered without his consent. That is also a question worthy of another discussion, so it's a good thing we have plenty of those on the way.

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Next week: we'll see if the train of positivity continues on to a wonderful Sunday.

Posted by Andrew

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