The opening of Akira Kurosawa’s No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) is set in 1933—two years after the Manchurian Incident, the event which hastened the invasion of northern China by the Imperial Japanese Army—and depicts a love triangle between the daughter of a well-off bourgeois family and a pair of university student suitors. The two men are diametric opposites in terms of their personalities and agendas. One is an outspoken antimilitarist determined to save Japan from its own expansionist policies. The other’s a weak-willed law student perfectly content to live in accordance with the system rather than take a stand or even voice a word against it. Both can see the wrong in their country’s recent actions—especially when one of their professors loses his job for liberalism—but only one sees fit to do anything about it. As for Yukie Yagihara, the young woman caught between them, her choosing between these two embodies a struggle which runs much deeper than the mere selection of a marital partner. Life with one would provide total economic security at the cost of free speech; marriage with the other would “blaze so brightly” with passion reminiscent of that which the man carries in his struggles for academic freedom in Japan and peace for the world.
Based on this inaugurating plot thread, one might assume No Regrets for Our Youth to be a politically charged movie with our heroine’s choice representing a stance favored by the people behind the camera. That was certainly my impression when I reviewed the film in June of 2014: “It’s all the more surprising (and impressive) that here, [director Kurosawa] should have chosen to project some of his country’s postwar feelings through a female protagonist.” I felt pretty confident in this verdict at the time, and I more or less stuck by it when I wrote about the movie again in my career retrospective article on Kurosawa a year later: “By using a love triangle—with a strong female character at the center—Kurosawa could represent Japan’s divided pre-war attitude and ultimately, via the heroine’s decision, stand for the ideology he personally supported.”
I don’t necessarily disagree with either of these statements today. As a matter of fact, the record would support them, as part of the filmmakers’ intent was to demand justice for people who’d lost their jobs—and even their lives—to Japan’s prewar/wartime authoritarian government. On the other hand, it wasn’t until my most recent viewing that I came to discover my earlier interpretations of this picture were, in fact, merely scratching the surface of its true depth and humanity. Seeing the film again—and having done more extensive research into its background and pre-production—I realize now: No Regrets for Our Youth is not a hardcore political movie, nor is it really about any political theory in general. There are politics in the film, but the film is ultimately not about the politics; the character roster features a few activists, but the story’s not about activism; the plot opens with academic persecution, but the struggle for academic freedom does not become the center of the narrative. The subjects I mentioned are all relevant, of course, but they predominately serve as structural framework before which the real theme of the movie unfolds—a theme Kurosawa had touched on in earlier films and would return to again and again throughout his career.
Before we continue, it is perhaps worth noting that No Regrets for Our Youth was initially going to be a film teeming with much heavier political content. The screenplay was written by Eijiro Hisaita, a man noted for his resentment of Japanese militarism* (an image of the scriptwriter can be seen to the right), and modeled in part after two real-life controversies: the persecution of liberal university professor Yukitoki Takigawa; and the imprisonment/execution of Asahi Shinbun journalist/accused spy Hotsumi Ozaki. These two men were well-known political victims of the 1930s-40s, and their struggles are recreated, albeit in fictionalized form, in the movie.
According to the testimonies of both Kurosawa and producer Keiji Matsuzaki, Hisaita’s script (penned over a course of twenty days) was meant to be a through-and-through fictionalized account of Takigawa’s persecution and Ozaki’s murder and was to take a few well-aimed swipes at the people behind the wrongs done to them. But between completion of the script and actual shooting of the film, interferences sprung up, restraining the political content on a number of grounds.
For example, the opening intertitle, as originally written, was to call out by name Ichiro Hatoyama, Japan’s Minister of Education from 1931-1934, the man responsible for the arrests/terminations of many educators deemed leftist or liberal during the pre-war years (Takigawa included). This intertitle was heavily modified for the finished film, pinning blame for the real-life tragedies on a more generalized culprit: “militarists.” Interviewed decades later on the subject, Kurosawa confirmed suspicions that Hatoyama’s name had been removed at the behest of the studio. “I wanted to demand that these people, such as Hatoyama, take responsibility [for the Takigawa and Ozaki incidents.] However, the Toho company told me to delete [Hatoyama’s name] because it would have been upsetting.”
While the western powers governing the Land of the Rising Sun from 1945-1952 probably would’ve had no issue with a film directly attacking the authority figure in question, the front office at Toho clearly did not want to go along with the idea—perhaps due to the fact that, at the time, Ichiro Hatoyama was president of the Liberal Party, the most popular government body in the first postwar general election. (The executives who made this decision probably congratulated themselves in hindsight when Hatoyama rose through the ranks and became Japan’s 35th prime minister in 1954.)
Continuing on the subject of internal interference. On March 20, 1946, Toho’s labor union—which consisted of 5,600 members—went on a fifteen-day strike, demanding higher pay and more creative power from their superiors. As Kurosawa recalled in his autobiography, “the Toho employees’ union became very powerful [after the studio relented], and the number of Communist Party members among the employees increased. Their voice in matters of film production became more important than before, and a Scenario Review Committee was formed. This committee decided that the script for No Regrets [for Our Youth] required changes, and the film was shot from a rewrite.”
It was not the political nature of Hisaita’s script that was forging objections from the unionists. Rather, it was the simple fact that another script modeled after Ozaki’s arrest and execution was already set to be produced by Toho. Kurosawa argued in favor of his project, insisting that while both screenplays drew inspiration from the same event, they handled their stories in entirely different ways and thus could be filmed simultaneously without adjustments being made to either. Alas, the committee members refused to concede and even questioned Kurosawa whether adherence to his vision was worth upstaging a fellow director. “After my film was completed, it turned out that the other film [Kiyoshi Kusuda’s As Long as I Live (1946)] was totally uninteresting. Therefore, [the unionists] began to say that they should have let me make my film as I had wanted to. I yelled at them, ‘What are you talking about now?’ The unionists and communists were really lording it over us then. A communist screenplay writer was repatriated, and he insisted on incorporating the device of syllogism into screenplay writing. However, I replied that an uninteresting screenplay is uninteresting despite all such devices. I argued often because I was young.” (This last quote comes from a 1985 interview with Kurosawa conducted by Kyoko Hirano, excerpts of which are printed in her book Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Cinema Under the American Occupation, 1945-1952.)
The Protagonist and Casting
Despite misgivings between Kurosawa and the studio, the protagonist of No Regrets for Our Youth, Yukie Yagihara, became a textbook example of the sort of role which appealed to (American) film censors in the immediate years of the occupation**. Though not an outwardly political character (as I shall demonstrate shortly), Yukie associates with politically minded people in the first half of the story and is driven by personal needs. She acts according to her own feelings, her own morality, her own impulses, her own agenda. Add to that: depicting an idealistic young woman would’ve been deemed favorable, as movies with strong female leads had been heartily encouraged to Japanese movie studios in the postwar years—deriving from Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers Douglas MacArthur’s mission to “democratize” Japan, which included the political, social, cinematic, etc. emancipation of women***. All of this made Yukie an ideal heroine for an occupation-era movie.
There was also tremendous irony in the casting of Setsuko Hara in the role. Hara had entered the film industry in 1935 and rose to historically fascinating prominence two years later when she appeared in the Japan-Nazi Germany co-production The New Earth / The Daughter of the Samurai (1937), a film which championed, among other things, the Japanese invasion of the Fast East. In the picture’s denouement, a Japanese man who has given up his German love interest marries a “pure” Japanese woman—played by Hara, who, oddly enough, was speculated throughout her life to have been quarter-European—and they begin wedded life farming on occupied Manchurian soil: the titular New Earth.
As the war went on, Hara’s public image intensified and she began taking on roles in movies promoting national policy, such as Kajiro Yamamoto’s The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya (1942) and Mikio Naruse’s Until Victory Day (1945). In films such as these, she regularly played ordinary women carrying out their part in boosting national spirit as well as promoting the war effort. To give specifics from another example, her character in Kunio Watanabe’s Toward the Decisive Battle in the Sky (1943) spends the vast majority of her screen time hosting local military trainees, listening to their cheery training stories, and sees them off at their Pacific-bound departure with a happy smile (her pride further enhanced by the fact that her little brother has started basic training).
Here was an actress who’d attained stardom in movies that were either tacitly or explicitly nationalistic or jingoistic; and now, all of a sudden, that same talent had been cast in a film defiant of those same policies. Once a cinematic flag-waver, she was now, on screen, the daughter of a liberal teacher (the film’s Takigawa equivalent), the love interest of a radical (modeled specifically after Ozaki), and a victim—like them—of wartime militarism.
For reasons which have never been made clear, Hara did not wish to star in Kurosawa’s film (however, being under contract to Toho at the time, she would’ve had no choice). But regardless of whatever apathy she might’ve felt toward the film’s script or political content (or something else entirely), the actress turned out one of her most mesmerizing screen performances, one so rich and engrossing that it leaves one genuinely sad to realize she would only work with Kurosawa once more, on his 1951 adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. And as impressive as their 1946 collaboration turned out, there’ll always be a tantalizing “What If…?” quality imbuing this picture. One cannot help but wonder what sort of performance—and character—Hara might’ve evoked had Kurosawa been allowed to shoot the script he wanted….****
But hypothetical scenarios really don’t amount to much—especially in the face of the exceptionally strong movie that came out of this troubled production. In dialing back on the political content, Akira Kurosawa was able to emphasize an omnipresent and ever-important theme that he’d dealt with before and would continue to dabble in throughout his professional life. The theme of independence and personal growth, which is evoked in No Regrets for Our Youth through its heroine and her unrelenting quest for self-discovery.
An Apolitical Person in an Intensely Political Environment
The movie begins with twenty-year-old Yukie walking amid the gorgeous natural scenery of Arashiyama (one of the major sightseeing destinations just outside of Kyoto). In her company are her parents and seven of her father’s students—two of them being Noge (Susumu Fujita), the freedom fighter, and Itokawa (Akitake Kono), the conformist. The parents stop for a rest on the banks of a river while the young people traverse to Mount Yoshida, where they can see their university. One of the students labels the school the “cradle of freedom.” No sooner has he finished his proclamation when the rattle of machine guns shatters the air. Imperial soldiers are on maneuvers close by, training for action overseas. The politically aware Noge cynically comments, “We can sing about academic freedom all we want, but fascism’s on the rise since the Manchurian Incident.” Yukie glances over her shoulder at him with a look of bemusement. “Back on your favorite subject, I see,” she remarks. After rising to her feet, the young woman starts skipping down the slopes, excited by the sound of distant gunfire, before coming to a halt at the sight of something in the brush. Her companions gather around and Kurosawa’s camera swings downward, revealing the crumpled form of a wounded soldier lying face-down in the dirt.
This opening sequence is a masterclass of great filmmaking on so many levels. In addition to the impeccable camerawork and editing, Kurosawa and screenwriter Hisaita plainly dictate the social environment in which their story takes place (and also show us a sample of the consequences of said social environment; the movie never actually goes overseas to the battlefront, so the filmmakers transpose an image of human carnage home, instead). But more important, they provide us the first glimpses into the intensely political leanings of the character of Noge as well as the genuine lack of political leanings of our heroine. Yukie recognizes and acknowledges Noge’s politicizing in an utterly nonchalant manner, clearly having heard it before; but she neither endorses nor counters it; she merely brushes it off. And her excitement over the sound of machine guns is, as she describes it, due to it being “so clear and rhythmic.” No mention of what it contextually represents in this scene (Japan’s expansionist policies) interesting her in the slightest. The movie’s only a few minutes old and already we have some understanding as to how the characters individually feel about the world around them. And while Yukie, in true Kurosawa fashion, soon undergoes a journey of immense personal change, the path she ends up taking is not what one might expect after this opening. (A quest to prevent war does not become her life mission.)
Like his real-life counterpart, Yukie’s father (Denjiro Okochi) has been expelled from Kyoto Imperial University for holding liberal beliefs, as revealed in a montage of newspaper headlines announcing his termination. Immediately after this, we segue into an argument between the professor’s daughter and Noge. (Itokawa, meantime, sits quietly between them.) Noge goes on about their nation’s recent plundering of Manchuria and how “militarists, backed by industry […] hope to resolve Japan’s internal contradictions through foreign conquest.” Yukie, who’s been staring at her fingers the entire time, scoffs: “All you talk about are Manchuria, militarists, and industrialists. I hate leftists.” (That last sentence clearly intended as an insult to Noge due to his constantly bringing up the subject.) Consistent with behavior seen in Arashiyama, her initial retaliations in this scene stem from disinterest and boredom—boredom of having heard the same thing again and again—with no disagreement with what’s actually being said.
However, as soon as the topic shifts to her father’s expulsion, Yukie begins to exhibit 1) pride-generated obstinacy, and 2) genuine naïveté. She states her father is “a liberal, not a Red,” only to be accurately countered with the fact that the government considers anyone even remotely opposed to overseas aggression a Red. (Unlike Noge, Yukie doesn’t even have basic understanding of the political landscape forming around her.) It’s furthermore not until Noge points out that the plan for mass resignation of university faculty would do nothing to halt the militarists (or restore the professor his job) that Yukie exhibits even an iota of serious concern. (“Then what do you suggest?”) In addition to these revealing bits of dialogue, take note of actress Setsuko Hara’s body language and how it evolves over the course of the scene: distraction-prone in the beginning, fidgety and agitated in the middle, stubborn yet tinged with defeat at the end. Finally, Yukie announces she’s done with the conversation, insisting there’s more to life than “logic,” though she hasn’t a single example to offer in demonstrating her point. And rather than describe what she has in mind, she hurriedly encourages Itokawa to follow her to the piano to listen to some “nice music.” A feeble attempt to scurry away from the argument she’s just lost.
As we can see from both the movie’s opening and the subsequent conversation in the Yagihara household, Yukie’s a free spirit more than anything else. Her ideologies, such as they are, consist of extremely basic notions of right and wrong—“My father is in the right, and right will prevail.”—and she’s far more truculent than knowledgeable, not only about politics but about basic human existence. Which is something Noge’s quick to point out. “All you know of life are the pretty scenes outside your window. […] You ridicule logic, but beauty and pleasure not founded on reason are mere bubbles.”
The scene presses on. Yukie, visibly hurt by Noge’s words, starts hammering away on her piano, pretending to play Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition for the amusement of Itokawa—continuing to do so even after Noge picks up his hat and leaves. After abruptly putting a stop to her banging on the keys, she crams a cigarette into her mouth, turning to Itokawa for a light…only to pull away at the last second. Then, the young woman, eyes gleaming, begs her remaining companion to kowtow and apologize (for whatever he wants, so long as he gets down on his knees). When he relents, Yukie becomes distraught at the submissiveness on display and admonishes the law student for not being able to tell her the truth about herself as Noge had just done. What might come across as a confusing burst of erratic behavior is actually, upon further examination, a depiction of a naïve, spoiled individual—who thought she could live without a thought or a care—briefly attempting to regain some sense of control over her environment before coming around to reluctant acceptance of the facts. All her life, she’s led a mindless existence, soaking up the carefree benefits provided by her parents, blissfully and ignorantly disregarding the world and her place within it. The argument with Noge has brought all of this crashing around her.
Flash forward to 1938. Noge was arrested and sent to prison by the militarists five years ago, following a failed student demonstration, and hasn’t been seen since. But his argument with Yukie has remained on the latter’s heart and mind. Having come to realize the vacuity of her life and saddened to see Noge’s cause simmering—the activist’s colleagues decide not to pursue further action against the government following his arrest—Yukie’s suddenly hurled into her newfound void. No longer does she go frolicking through the wilderness with fawning university students. Instead, she passionlessly studies. In one of the movie’s very best scenes—one exhibiting how brilliantly Kurosawa could use imagery to evoke thoughts from the audience—Yukie dismantles one of her projects in a flower arranging class. “Our teacher said that in flower arrangement, you should express yourself freely,” she explains. To prove her point, she plucks the heads of three flowers and places them in a triangular formation in a tray of water, exemplifying her state of mind and her psychological relation to her two suitors. (She momentarily considers marrying Itokawa, now a prosecutor, but ultimately decides against the idea, for life with him would be safe but “boring”; on the other hand, life with Noge would “blaze,” making the prospect “terrifying” but “enticing.”)
Notice how most of these situations have remarkably little to do with Japan’s mounting political scenario. Although she is far more acute to her own existence at this point, Yukie has not taken up any particularly strong activist beliefs; indeed, any newfound political notions on her part are, like her ideologies, extremely basic and marginal. For instance, she now recognizes her country’s expansionist agenda as a bad thing—eyeing troops on the street as they voice anticipation for death on the battlefield—but never takes action against it. At best, she’s more aware that government-led actions affect the world in which she lives.
Even the second “twist” in her life is largely divorced from politics. A half-decade after his arrest, Noge, released from prison, pays a visit to the Yagihara household. Once vibrant and full of revisionist passion, the young activist’s been transformed into a passive, soft-spoken wimp; he renounced his leftist beliefs in exchange for early release and, even in private conversation, is very careful not to say anything even remotely abrasive. In short, he’s become another conformist. Seeing Noge like this leaves Yukie in a state of emotional despair. And it is immediately after this visit that she decides to leave home, bound for Tokyo (having studied typing and foreign languages in college, she can get a job at a trading company). When confronted by her father, the young woman breaks down before tearfully professing her reasons. “[R]ight now, I feel as if I’m not even living. I want to at least go out into the world and see for myself what it means to be alive.” Her father then encourages her to go, provided she understands “freedom” (notice he doesn’t say “academic freedom” or “political freedom”) comes with a price, for which she must be prepared.
Yukie’s behavior and decisions make eminent sense upon close examination—and, once again, have remarkably little to do with social beliefs she still has no outward passion for. Seeing her old companion so radically changed was indeed the final turning point for her, but the political nature of Noge’s (seemingly abandoned) cause was incidental: it was his drive and determination that was important to Yukie, because it defined who Noge was; he exemplified living life with reason and purpose (something Yukie’s come to realize she lacks in her own life); and seeing that same man dehumanized, gutted of what he used to be, has left her an emotional wreck. (That she’s fallen in love with him only makes the realization more painful.) And now, the only way she feels she can replenish her belief in the self is to strike out on her own and discover a way to lead life with meaning. She doesn’t know what that might be or what role she should take on, but she believes she’s able—rather, needs—to find it.
All of this is subsequently augmented when Yukie and Noge reunite in Tokyo.
In an intensely claustrophobic scene running seven minutes in length, Yukie and Noge converse in the latter’s deserted office building, drenched in the shadows of night. It is now 1941, three years since their last encounter. Yukie’s lived in Tokyo all that time and has changed jobs three times since moving. “They were never more than a way to put food on the table,” she confesses. “I want something…I can throw myself into…body and soul. That’s the kind of work I want.” Having failed to find a fulfilling occupation on her own and further motivated by her emotional feelings for him, Yukie became determined to find Noge (she’d even considered going to China earlier, having heard he might be there) in hopes that he could set her down the path that was right for her. To emphasize a point I alluded to earlier: in the course of their conversation, the closest Yukie comes to asking about antimilitarism is when she asks Noge if he’s keeping a secret about something “wonderful” (wonderful because it would indicate he’s reverted back to being a radical, back to who he is). Still no enunciated interest in joining the movement herself.
In any event, even though Noge doesn’t have an answer as to what his companion can do on her own, Yukie’s suspicions about him prove correct. Despite prison time and the charade he’d put on at the Yagihara home three years earlier, Noge hasn’t given up his beliefs. He’s merely moonlighting as an office man, continuing his antimilitarist practices behind the scenes. But as the national authorities are steadily pushing themselves into war with the United States (and doubling down on their efforts to silence anyone against it), the police will inevitably catch onto him, and when they do, the consequences will be deadly. Well aware of this and wanting to make the most of their limited time together, the two young people share an apartment in Tokyo*****. Although she studied languages and has skills as a typist (qualities which would surely be helpful in Noge’s professional and personal interests), Yukie merely takes care of him when he comes home, assuming—for all intents and purposes—the role of a housewife. Even when they’re arrested by the police and Noge dies his cell (presumably tortured to death), Yukie never actually follows in his footsteps and becomes an antimilitarist. In fact, the mission she undertakes in the last part of the movie (to be discussed shortly) has virtually nothing to do with her lover’s ambitions and accomplishments.
Based on everything that’s been described thus far, we can plainly see Yukie Yagihara is not an especially political person. In truth, she’s a relatively apolitical person in love with an inspiring man who just happens to be political and living in intensely political times. The fact that she chooses the freedom fighter can be read as a tacit endorsement of his cause—and that is certainly a subtheme in the picture—but the cause itself is not the force motivating her and is ultimately not the core of the movie. Because of this, Yukie’s quite dissimilar from, say, the protagonist of Kenji Mizoguchi’s Flame of My Love (1949), to whom she is often compared. And No Regrets for Our Youth is hardly an ideal companion piece to that particular film. Both movies feature strong female protagonists striving for something in times of great political upheaval, but the way the two films treat their subjects and what their respective heroines actually fight for are drastically different.
Kinuyo Tanaka’s lead in the Mizoguchi film was an ardently political person. Her motives, her decisions, even her choice of company were fueled by her activism, her desire to seek emancipation and equality (and respect) for all women in Japan. (At one point, she leaves her insurrectionist boyfriend after discovering he’s been philandering behind her back; they may have enemies in common, but she cannot remain—even associate—with someone who won’t even respect her as a woman.) By contrast, Setsuko Hara in No Regrets for Our Youth is motivated by the need for self-discovery; the person she’s out to save—at least before Noge’s death—is herself. And through her subsequent mission to redeem the man she loved, she ends up redefining herself and finds what she was looking for in the first place.
An interesting footnote before we continue. No Regrets for Our Youth left a very positive impression on contemporary audiences and was even selected by Kinema Junpo magazine as the second best Japanese movie of the year, but it also drew some considerable ire from critical voices. In a “Short Review” published in Eiga Times, for instance, the complaint was made that: “The film is proud of itself as progressive; however, it is fatal that the film in reality praises the conventional morality.” The jabs made by this reviewer were aimed at some of Yukie’s key decisions: decisions seeming to conform to standard virtues for women in mid-20th century Japan (such as taking on housewife-esque roles and responsibilities). On the one hand, the reviewer’s correct that some of Yukie’s decisions lead to her assuming “standardized” tasks, and it’s certainly possible to contend her not participating in Noge’s cause deprived them of even more time to be in each other’s company. (One could compellingly argue this is a lapse in the film’s screenplay.)
But on the other hand, to reiterate something I’ve discussed at length, Yukie’s political outlook is and remains extremely marginal, and certain scenes demonstrate that mere reminders of Noge’s endangerment leave her emotionally frail—such as when she breaks down upon hearing of “good news” in his mission (the fact that Noge’s making progress means the odds of him getting caught are now tenfold). Being around him at work and behind the scenes—receiving much more than hints of his inevitable fate—might’ve exacerbated the emotional ordeal she was going through. Also to reiterate: the reason why Yukie lives with Noge in the first place is due to them acting on their limited time left to be together—as is made clear through dialogue. (It’s not her mission or salvation to become a housewife.) Still, one could quibble a bit with the writing here.
But where the Eiga Times reviewer most egregiously missed the mark was in his criticizing Yukie’s next decision: to move in with Noge’s parents after his death (“The theme that a woman has to stay with her husband’s family even after he dies is very obsolete.”). On the surface, this may seem like a valid observation; but when examined in context, scrutiny does not align with this interpretation. For it is here, in this long, absolutely marvelous final forty minutes of the picture, that Yukie Yagihara’s quest for self-discovery comes to fruition, and in ways that are only superficially “conventional.”
Personal Transformation and Discovery of the Self
Yukie’s motivation for what ultimately brings about the greatest change in her life stems from her final conversation with Noge. Mere hours before his arrest, the seemingly impervious freedom fighter revealed his one true weakness: his estranged relationship with his rice farmer parents, whom he hadn’t seen in ten years (and would never see again). He feared the scolding of his father and the tears of his mother, and despite his belief that fighting for peace in Japan would, in a way, include amending his relationship with them, he still considered them his “weak spot.” In this scene, Yukie realizes Noge, too, had a void in his life, one he was never able to fill.
In the wake of their son’s much-publicized death, Noge’s parents refuse to make the journey to claim his remains—for reasons that are soon made clear and somewhat understandable. In addition to the strained relationship that existed between the deceased and his progenitors, the government-controlled media’s denouncement of Noge as a spy has cast a nationwide bias over his family. The farming community in which the parents reside has completely turned on them, forcing the two elderlies to board up their doors and windows (covered with graffiti spelling out phrases such as “Spies Live Here”) and work their fields only under the cover of night. Indeed, as Yukie learns in delivering Noge’s ashes, the mother (Haruko Sugimura) blames her son for their newfound circumstances, cursing him while she digs his grave. After seeing all of this, Yukie’s determined to remain, at least temporarily, with her in-laws. Not because “conventional morality” insists the daughter-in-law tend to her husband’s family, but because she sees it as her task to mend the “weak spot” Noge could never mend himself. She knows not how she can do it, only that she must. And at no point in this last section do we see her take on especially “conventional” roles: she doesn’t prepare meals, clean the house, etc. (As a matter of fact, she frequently acts against the wishes of her in-laws.) As with the political events in the film, the change of scenery/company merely forms a framework—a situation—through which Yukie undertakes her journey. And in the process, she completely strips herself of her bourgeois background and everything that came with it.
As is demonstrated in what is, unquestionably, the film’s most mesmerizing scene. Having made it clear she will not—cannot—leave, Yukie joins her mother-in-law in the long, taxing process of growing rice. Kurosawa ends the previous scene with a shot of Yukie on her hands and knees and then cross-dissolves to a pair of hoes, the blades of the tools directly matching the position of our protagonist’s hands. The first hoe’s picked up by the mother-in-law, the second by Yukie, who’s already undergoing a change of wardrobe. In the earlier scene, she was clad in a full-fledged middle-class suit; now, she’s without her suit jacket. (The first “layer” of her background, peeled away.) Next, Kurosawa takes us to the fields. The mother-in-law’s hacking apart the hard, grassy terrain with an attitude that can only be described as antagonistic. Yukie stands off to the side in a state of horror. Once again, the mother starts cursing her dead child: “Rotten, ungrateful son!”
At the mention of these words—reinforcing why Yukie came here in the first place—the young woman lifts her hoe off the ground and takes a step forward. As she does, one of her shoes comes loose—stripping away yet another layer of her background—and she takes her first strike at the earth, eventually, with some effort, tearing out a large chunk of it. The two women then start working as a team, the mother no longer saying a word, perplexed by her daughter-in-law’s determination. Yukie’s adjustment is not immediate. Her pristine white shirt’s soon caked in mud; she quickly begins to tire; discomforting blisters open on her hands. But she doesn’t stop. To counter the blisters, she forges a couple of makeshift bandages. To prevent her hair from flying around, she pins it back, away from her face. And the harder she works, the more efficient she becomes. She has found it. After much searching, in a way she never imagined—and for a cause she never hoped for—Yukie’s found work into which she can completely throw herself, “body and soul.”
In capping off this remarkable sequence, Kurosawa segues into a series of cross-dissolves, transitioning between four similarly composed wide shots of Yukie hoeing laterally before the camera. With each cross-dissolve, part of the heroine’s former wardrobe disappears, replaced by lower-class work attire. And then, the final dissolve. Our protagonist is completely unrecognizable and in more ways than one. Whereas previously in the scene Yukie would pour herself a cup of water during breaks, she now hefts the entire jug over her head, drinking straight from the spout. Her wardrobe has changed, her etiquette has changed, Yukie herself has changed. (A later image in the film: her hands skillfully whisk over the keys of her piano back home, soon dissolved and replaced by a shot of those same hands—covered with bandages—being rinsed in the countryside river. With that, every iota of who Yukie Yagihara used to be is, figuratively, metaphorically, washed away.)
Through a great deal of physical and mental anguish, Yukie attains the respect of her in-laws and makes strides in improving their way of life. She tears down the boards covering their doors and windows and endures the hostile gazes of the villagers when she strolls through town (Kurosawa does not glamorize lower-class communities—once again, it’s merely a venue). She continues to work right alongside her mother-in-law (in daylight now) until they’ve converted whole acres of grassy fields into rice paddies. And when all of their hard work’s destroyed in a night raid by the villagers—who leave hate-spewing signs in the muddy water—it is Yukie who makes the first move to start planting all over again. The mother-in-law follows suit. And then, at last, the father-in-law (Kokuten Kodo), who has been silent and inactive all this time, takes action, tearing down the signs, shouting defiance of the people (their own neighbors) who’ve done this to them. Noge’s parents finally realize the cruelty inflicted upon them is and always has been the cause of society, not their son. Yukie’s mission is a success.
The story of No Regrets for Our Youth ends twelve years after it began, in 1945. An intertitle proclaims: “The war is lost, but freedom is restored.” Yukie’s father has been restored to his teaching job at Kyoto Imperial University, and Noge’s come to be revered as a martyr. (The late antimilitarist once told Yukie that, in time, the public would appreciate what people like him had done.) Still, there is an air of sadness in the present—reflection over what was lost in the struggle for freedom, academic and otherwise—especially at the reception where Professor Yagihara gives a speech about his former student. All is certainly better, but hardly ideal.
As for Yukie, now thirty-two years old, there’s much left to be done. Her successfully mending Noge’s image in the minds of his parents unintentionally paved her way to a new cause worthy of devotion. However, promoting outright liberalism is still not her forte; her mission instead is to ease the hardships inherent in the lives of lower-class people, which she has now experienced first-hand. “Their lives—especially the women’s lives—are brutally hard,” she informs her mother. “If I can improve their lot even a little, my life will be well spent.” Examined with everything which has come before it, this line by Yukie emphasizes the same overarching theme present from the start. Yukie may have become an activist (and in some limited sense might now be a political person—albeit in a much more reserved sense than Noge was; notice how she doesn’t outright blame anyone for the farmers’ hardships or declare herself an enemy of anyone), but whatever politics she might have uncovered still play second fiddle to the notions of personal growth and transformation. In setting out to redeem the man she loved, Yukie ended up redefining herself and found the reason for living she was seeking in the first place.
There is tremendous irony in the last few minutes of No Regrets for Our Youth—both in the writing and in Setsuko Hara’s performance. In playing the scene of Yukie explaining her situation to her mother, Hara beams incessantly, even forcibly, as though putting on a façade of happiness. And if the next scene is any indicator, she just might be. On her way out of town, Yukie stops by beautiful Arashiyama, and this time, she’s all alone (in a place where she used to frolic with others in naïve innocence). Resting next to a babbling brook, she watches a new generation of students—ones who didn’t have to choose between conformism and individuality—hopping across the stones spanning the stream (just as she and her friends had done; they even sing the same songs). Framed in a long-lasting close-up, Yukie somberly stares after the students, remembering her youth and everything she’s lost. The title of the movie comes from a phrase Noge once said to her and she’s adopted it herself, but it’s only somewhat true. Yukie may have found a meaningful way to lead her life, but it’s come at a terrible price.
For the picture’s ending, Kurosawa added a dialogue-free coda absent in Eijiro Hisaita’s screenplay. Three trucks come barreling past the camera down a gravel road—destination: the farming community—the last one stopping to pick up Yukie, who needs a ride. The farmers in the back of the truck are all smiles as they take her suitcase and help her up. Once aboard, Yukie leans against the chassis, standing before everyone else. An irony-fueled montage ensues with the farmers smiling and bowing (apologetically as well as welcomingly) to the very same woman who, just a few years before, they had all scorned and shunned as the wife of a spy. Perplexed at first, Yukie finally gives a soft smile. Noge’s words have proven true: in time, the Japanese people came to realize the nobility of his cause. Our heroine’s smile is tinged with sadness (she did lose Noge, after all), but at least now she has proof her love’s death wasn’t completely in vain. The final image begins as a group shot of everyone with Yukie framed in the center; the truck then resumes its journey, pulling away from the camera, taking Yukie back to the village where she uncovered not so much her political beliefs but her independence, her cause, her reason for living, and her sense of self.
In a 1956 issue of Eiga Junkan magazine, Kurosawa was quoted saying: “I believed [at the time of No Regrets for Our Youth] that it was necessary to respect the ‘self’ for Japan to be reborn. I still believe it. I depicted a woman who maintained such a sense of ‘self.’” And following a very careful and thorough analysis of the picture under discussion, I am convinced, now more than ever, that this is the core of his movie. The film’s social backdrop certainly influences key narrative events but only takes center stage on occasion; much more attention is instead zeroed in on Yukie and her journey.
Themes of individual growth had been of interest to Kurosawa ever since his directorial debut in 1943; but his ability to flex this notion had been greatly restricted by the confines of wartime censorship. His earliest movies showed characters growing only within government-approved subjects (such as mastering judo—Japan’s national sport) and women were, for the most part, meek, inspiring only in their spiritual purity. The closest Kurosawa had come to a Yukie Yagihara before was in 1944’s The Most Beautiful, his one wartime film with a determined, self-regulating female lead. Despite the propaganda-infested context of this film, there were some aching bits of humanity evoked through its main character: the heroine relentlessly searching for an unchecked rifle lens through all hours of the night, for fear one of her countrymen would die a needless death due to having a faulty weapon in battle; the same person breaking down in tears upon realizing her ceaseless devotion at work cost her the chance to say goodbye to her terminally ill mother. A discussion on the humanity of The Most Beautiful in and of itself is an interesting topic (perhaps one for another day); but it wasn’t until No Regrets for Our Youth that Kurosawa was able to present individuals and individual achievement in a way that was truly special.
And in Yukie, the director cemented traits destined to filter into other characters of his down the road. Besides what Kyoko Hirano has mentioned in her book (that stubbornness and insistence on pushing through life’s struggles would define later Kurosawa women), I would like to note that bits and pieces of Yukie’s characterization sometimes resurfaced through protagonists in Kurosawa’s predominately male-centric filmography—with Takashi Shimura’s civil servant in Ikiru (1952) immediately coming to mind. Like Yukie, Shimura undertakes his journey in that film primarily to satisfy a personal need, to accomplish something meaningful with his life. And while he’s awakened to this need by a very different set of circumstances, the emotions behind his reasoning are quite similar to those of the woman who gave up her carefree bourgeois existence in favor of something she couldn’t even identify but eventually discovered with redefining passion. As both characters admit in key scenes from their respective movies, all either of them wants is to discover what it truly means to live.
All of this renders Yukie Yagihara into an essential figure in Kurosawa cinema, worthy of careful thought and analysis. Passionate, vigorous, and endlessly fascinating—very much like the movie around her.
* No Regrets for Our Youth screenwriter Eijiro Hisaita had been imprisoned by the government before the war for practicing as a leftist writer. Although he was forced to write national policy films during the war years—such as Kozaburo Yoshimura’s Final Struggle (1943)—he returned to his leftist beliefs immediately after the surrender. Most notably, during the same year as his collaboration with Kurosawa, he wrote Keisuke Kinoshita’s antimilitarist drama Morning for the Osone Family (1946), which was chosen by the prestigious Kinema Junpo magazine as the best Japanese movie of the year (No Regrets for Our Youth was chosen as the second best).
** When the Allied Powers took over Japan after the surrender, they immediately set out to control all Japanese media, including the content of movies. See my article on another Akira Kurosawa film, Those Who Make Tomorrow, for more information.
*** As early as October 11, 1945—mere months after the surrender—General Douglas MacArthur personally recommended that Prime Minister Kijuro Shidehara make the emancipation of women the highest of his priorities. The occupation government’s demands led to the formation of the Women’s and Minors’ Bureau in the Japanese Ministry of Labor in September 1947 and opened national universities to women. Furthermore, in the first postwar general election (April 10, 1946), the number of women occupying seats in the Shugiin (the Japanese House of Representatives) increased from zero to thirty-nine.
**** Kurosawa was forever insistent the original script that Hisaita wrote for him was much better than the script he ended up shooting. “[Hisaita’s] first script for my film was such a beautiful piece of work that it still pains me to remember that it was shelved at the hands of such thoughtless people.”
***** Yukie professes to have been married to Noge, but all evidence in the film indicates they were simply lovers. Not once do we see a wedding ceremony, pictures, etc. And the key piece of evidence is when Yukie is interrogated by the police, in which they ask her how long she and Noge had been (their words) “lovers.”