Kurosawa films
Film posters courtesy of Toho Studios

Akira Kurosawa Films 101: 1946 – 1948

Day Two of Akira Kurosawa 101 examines three of his films that address the nature of life in Japan immediately at the end of WWII and the American Occupation.

No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)

No Regrets for Our Youth is an idealistic movie. It is full of noble sentiments about freedom and sacrifice. These values are very Japanese; they are also very American. When Kurosawa made the picture in 1946, he was accountable to American censors, but he was also responding to a vision of post-war Japan that he would develop throughout his career. No Regrets for Our Youth is a product of that period just as much as it is a product of Kurosawa’s assertive moral convictions. It is a movie of abrupt shifts and dramatic decisions, growth, decay, and renewal.

Yukie (Setsuko Hara) is the daughter of a well-known professor of law (Denjirô Ôkôchi, who had major roles in four of Kurosawa’s first five films) at the university in Kyoto. Nestled safely in her home, nourished on quiet family dinners and long hours at the piano, she is nonetheless surrounded by her father’s leftist ideas and the students who adopt them. He is suddenly forced to resign for preaching communistic ideas and some of his followers are forced to compromise their principles in order to finish their degrees.

No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)

One student, though, the blunt and incorrigible Noge (Susumu Fujita), takes the harder road and eventually is imprisoned. Yukie is forced to reconsider her life by her seemingly futile love for Noge and by the political circumstances, becoming increasingly impossible to ignore, that created the problem in the first place. She decides to move to Tokyo, to live more truly, and is swept up the ensuing course of events until her lifestyle and her ambitions are utterly transformed.

Yukie’s father and lover are based on real people, the professor involved in the Takigawa incident of 1933 and his former student, a communist spy who worked with Richard Sorge. It’s the fictional girl herself, though, who clearly stands at the center of this movie. The political and historical turmoil, which would have weighed so heavily on the message of the 1946 release, are ultimately trimmings for her personal transformation from a spoiled and weak young woman to a disciplined and uncompromising activist of the most practical stripe. Hara brings the depth and winsomeness to Kurosawa’s movie with which she would later charm Japanese audiences in Ozu’s family dramas. Her performance and the studied compassion of the director’s machinations make No Regrets for Our Youth a meaningful exception to the hackneyed cinematic adage that Kurosawa did not work well with women.

The film stretches from Yukie’s adolescence to her mature adulthood, a span of twelve years, from 1933 to 1945, and sometimes the heavy use of montage and dissolves to express time’s passage wear the story a bit thin. The social philosophy it espouses all too explicitly makes the movie feel, to the unsympathetic American viewer, a bit like a Japanese version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Pace and tone are thus occasional disruptions in the flow of Kurosawa’s film, an awkwardness he himself acknowledged when he lamented the studio’s interference in the writing process.

At the film’s end, however, one has the feeling that Yukie’s plight is our own, that her questions about living life to the fullest, about holding herself responsible to the demands of adulthood, apply to everyone. Kurosawa also felt that because of the excessive interference that the Japanese military censors had exercised during WWII, No Regrets for Our Youth was the first movie in which he was able to express himself freely. If this movie is a paradigm for the master director’s concerns, his vision of the human condition, it is not surprising that his later work consistently addresses the same fundamental questions. No Regrets for Our Youth is unique because it gives such bold, even brash answers. — Dylan Nelson