Director: Akira Kurosawa
Seeing this early film of Kurosawa recently was for me a revelation. I was immediately struck by how dissimilar it is to most of the later films I'm familiar with. Those later works are almost exclusively male-centered. The women in those movies not only are few in number, but also tend to have secondary roles and to lack the complexity of the male characters. Like his idol John Ford, the subjects that interested Kurosawa—honor, loyalty, betrayal and revenge, shrewdness of thought and strategy, physical prowess and the use of force to ensure that personal might and moral right prevail—are male preoccupations explored through problems faced and resolved by male characters. Yet according to David Thomson, this is not typical of classic Japanese cinema: "Despite the flourish and fame of Kurosawa, the core of Japanese cinema is to be found in family stories, wistful romances, and in attention paid to women as much as to men." What is so surprising about No Regrets for Our Youth is how closely it corresponds to Thomson's description of mainstream Japanese cinema, unlike the bulk of Kurosawa's work.
Like many of the films coming out of China in the last twenty years, No Regrets not only places its story in the context of recent historical events, but actually links its plot to those events, in itself unusual in a Kurosawa movie. The main character is a young woman, Yukie (Sestuko Hara), the daughter of a professor of law at Kyoto University when the movie opens in 1933. Professors and students at the university are embroiled in agitation against the suppression of academic freedom by the minister of education, specifically the suppression of their protests against the war-mongering of the government in the run-up to the invasion of Manchuria—a situation strongly reminiscent of the controversial protest movements at universities in this country in the 1960s during the Vietnam War, such as the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley. Yukie is torn between two suitors, Itokawa and Noge. Both of these young men begin as student rebels but later follow different paths. Noge drops out of school just before graduating, spends five years in jail because of his political dissent, and after his release becomes an anti-war writer, publisher, and activist. In contrast, Itokawa abandons his rebellion, remains in school, and after graduation becomes a government prosecutor and member of the establishment.
Yukie, raised in a very Westernized household, rejects the traditional, subservient role of Japanese women and spends her life searching for meaning. In a house filled with books and Western furniture, she wears Western clothing, eats with a knife and fork, and plays Russian piano music, expressing her inner turmoil by intense sessions at the piano playing "The Great Gate of Kiev" from Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. At one point she shocks the other young women in her flower arranging class by telling them she hates the arrangement of hers they are admiring because she despises having to follow the rigid rules they are taught, preferring to follow her own inspiration. She then impulsively destroys her arrangement by tearing it from its vase, ripping the flowers off their stalks, and dropping three flowers into a large bowl of water, where they float in beautiful isolation (an unconscious representation of Itokawa, Noge, and herself adrift?) in an image that would not seem out of place in a film by Ozu.
This is just the beginning of Yukie's journey of self-discovery. She rejects Itokawa's marriage proposal, leaves home and supports herself working at a series of menial secretarial jobs in Tokyo, reconnects with Noge, marries him, sees him arrested as a traitor literally on the eve of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, is herself interrogated as a subversive (the arrogant interrogator is played by Takashi Shimura, who worked in at least twenty of Kurosawa's films, becoming one of his main male actors, second only to Toshiro Mifune, and in Kurosawa's 1952 masterpiece Ikiru gave one of the great screen performances of all time), jailed, widowed, estranged from her family, and finally ends up spending the duration of World War II as a permanent uninvited guest of Noge's resentful peasant mother and father.
This is certainly the closest thing Kurosawa ever made to a "women's picture," and the amazing thing is how well he does it. No Regrets was only his sixth movie as director, yet already he seems in full command of both the Western techniques of cinematic storytelling and the brilliant way he had of pursuing theme through character. No Regrets may be about a young woman, but its sensibility is in no way feminine. By concentrating on Yukie's quest for meaning in her life—even the romantic complications of her life are an offshoot of this—Kurosawa avoids the sentimentality that traditionally devalues the genre, elevating the film to a sort of female bildungsroman—the chronicles of the ethical, emotional, and spiritual development of a young woman who defies her culture's veneration of conformity over self-expression.
The picture is beautifully framed by two scenes: an idyllic picnic at the beginning of the movie and a scene near the end where Yukie revisits the site of the picnic and sees a new generation of students doing the same things she and her friends did all those years ago, a poignant reminder of how much her life has changed and how much she has grown in the intervening years. Like Shimura's dying civil servant in Ikiru, Yukie ultimately comes to the realization that the key to finding meaning in her life is to free herself from her own self-concern.
Kurosawa is aided immensely by the casting of Setsuko Hara as Yukie. The intelligence and spirit she brings to the role—what Thomson calls "her outward modesty and inner strength"—make the character come alive. She was only in her mid-twenties when the film was made, yet she was already an expert movie actress. (She had been acting in films for ten years.) The expressiveness of her voice, the subtlety of her facial expressions and body language, the independence of thought and strength of character she projects are tremendously affecting, reminiscent of the controlled intensity of the young Katharine Hepburn but without the exaggerated mannerisms. The way she holds her head perfectly still, looking slightly down and straight ahead as another character speaks to her, and then at just the exactly judged moment lifts her head, turns it, and gazes wistfully at the speaker with those soulful eyes is just hypnotic. She carries the entire movie, and her amazing work here prefigures the great performances for Ozu in Late Spring, Tokyo Story, and Late Autumn.
In No Regrets for Our Youth, as in only a few of his films like the great Ikiru, Kurosawa uncharacteristically downplays his trademark visual grandeur and stylization to concentrate instead on the inner life of a character. The result is a sensitivity and depth of feeling not typically associated with Kurosawa.