No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

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No Regrets for Our Youth is a coming of age story about Yukie (Setsuko Hara), a young college student who transcends the initial melodramatic love triangle and turns into a selfless, honorable, otherwise anonymous member of the community.

The film covers over a decade in her life and charts the work of student protests to counter government oppression.  Through Yukie and the object of her affection, Noge, we  are given what feel like patriotic messages about personal duty and the collective effort to overthrow oppressive forces.  It’s a sentiment that would surely have pleased the new American censors (who replaced the former Japanese ones following the end of World War II).

When the film opens, Yukie is among a group of friends running through the beautiful countryside.  They celebrate “academic freedom” with their heads way up in the clouds.  Even when nearby gunfire is heard it doesn’t shake Yukie from her dream.  One character will tell her she needs to grow up, but for now this undying optimism keeps her afloat.

There are two young men who orbit her either like vultures or planets in her solar system.  They are Noge and Itokawa.  None is the exciting one, the revolutionary whose work gets him sent to prison.  Itokawa is the safe one, the guy who gives up the idealistic fight and becomes a prosecutor.

Sometime later Yukie will bluntly tell Itokawa that he’s the one she should marry, but she’s convinced their life together would be boring.  Ouch.  Itokawa is a weird character, and it’s hard to tell how he feels about all this, about Yukie.  He will help get Noge out of prison four years after the story begins, and he repeatedly reintroduces Noge into Yukie’s life, all while he appears desperately, hopelessly in love with her.

Yukie decides to leave behind her parents and go live in Tokyo.  She expresses a fear that she is missing out on life, and once in Tokyo she comes across Itokawa who points her in the direction of Noge, also living in the city.  Yukie goes to see him, but she can’t bring herself to go inside Noge’s place of work.  There is one of several montages showing the passage of time as Yukie repeatedly lingers outside Noge’s office before one evening he surprises her.

Not long after that they’re married, though the marriage doesn’t fix everything.  Noge is deeply involved in his revolutionary work, the less of which Yukie knows, the better of she is they both decide.  This doesn’t help her when he is arrested for that work, and before she can see him again he dies in his cell.

At one point in the story, during the brief courtship between Yukie and Noge, he demonstrates a deep self-awareness and says his revolutionary work is really just a way of making up for the distance he feels from his parents, whom he hasn’t seen in about ten years.  This feels unconnected to the plot other than as a moment highlight character motivation, but it comes back into play after Noge’s death, with Yukie deciding to honor his memory by visiting his parents.

When Yukie visits them she finds that they hide in their small home, only daring to venture outside at night.  The villagers call them “spies” and “traitors” thanks to their son’s behavior, and it is up to Yukie to convince them that he was a good man.  She does this by breaking her back everyday in the fields to help them farm.  Her father-in-law, since she had married Noge, distrusts her and thinks she might be out to get them like everyone else around, but eventually she wins him over.

The field they work so hard on is destroyed by the villagers, and it’s this commitment to her own work, her absolute despair at the destruction, that convinces Noge’s father she’s for real.

Alright I’m getting really tired of recapping this movie.  I’ve taken maybe four youtube breaks already.  I guess if I’m this distracted writing this then it must not be that interesting to write.

This is a nice film, probably not one of Kurosawa’s better films, but not many of his well-known films take place in a contemporary setting as this one does.  It’s about very current (or relatively current) issues, and it contains a theme that seems deliberately pointed towards American audiences.

This is a story about a woman growing up and learning that life isn’t all about fame and glory.  She wants to head to the big city and eventually settles in the fields.  After her work with Noge’s parents is done, she returns home for a time before deciding to get back out there, working manual labor with a truckload of other people.  At one point, while toiling away on the piano, she remarks that her hardened hands looks strange on such a delicate instrument.

The most compelling aspects of this film, technically speaking, are the ways the passage of time is conveyed.  Told over many years, the story often jumps through time with a single location, shown through the different seasons.  In several moments Kurosawa uses jump cuts to condense time.  In one scene it’s not meant to convey the passage of months or years but just to heighten Yukie’s sense of despair.  In another she sits in prison while a clock pendulum swinging across the screen is superimposed over the image.

There is an experimental quality to these moments of the film, though for the most part this all feels pretty straight-forward.  Kurosawa’s early works, from my own limited experience, feel much less stylized and edgy than his later works.  It might be due to his own inexperience in the 40s compared to later in his career, or it might have to do with the varying systems of censorship in place.  Even though the Japanese censors were now replaced, the Americans censors wanted no anti-America sentiment, and from what I’ve read the final act of the film as rewritten against Kurosawa’s will, though I don’t know what the changes were.

Kurosawa’s next film, One Wonderful Sunday feels much more daring and personal while the visual storytelling similarly feels more self-assured.  The way characters move through space in rhythm, and the way the camera frames them and resists cutting to a close up suggests the visual quality of a painter.  The camera isn’t merely there to show who’s speaking and where, but instead it tells us something subconsciously through the angle, the character blocking, the insistence on holding on the wide shot and telling us something through empty space.

Similarly his film after that, and the next one I’m writing about, is a noir titled Drunken Angel in which he’s after a very specific, eerie mood.  Much of what we’re supposed to know and feel is conveyed in the first few minutes even without much dialogue.  We take one look at the beginning of the film, and we have a strong idea of what it’s about.

No Regrets for Our Youth is a nice story, a hopeful one, but from a filmmaking standpoint it feels conventional and rather unexciting.  Characters speak, and we listen to what they have to say to know what to expect.  I’m sure there is plenty that I missed, but the film relies on conversation to get information across in a way that could quickly put the audience at a distance.  Around the midpoint of the film there is a new momentum to the story, especially as we’re re-introduced to previous characters whose differences from when we first met them makes them much more interesting to observe.

The story is more interesting when we have the necessary background information, in other words, but the first twenty or so minutes of this film feel labored as we’re given all the background information we will need later on.  The exposition drags, and I think that’s partially because there isn’t much mood to the film, as with the other two Kurosawa works I mentioned.

In One Wonderful Sunday and Drunken Angel, we know almost immediately what we’re in for.  Those films begin with less conversation and more silent shots meant to convey a strong feeling.  There is character to the camera, and this carries the momentum of the story until the characters themselves become developed enough to take over.

Up Next: Drunken Angel (1948), Stray Dog (1949), Rashomon (1950)

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