No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)

Author: Patrick Galvan
June 13, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers

Akira Kurosawa's No Regrets for Our Youth shows the great Japanese director delving into an area not usually attributed with his body of work: empathizing with a female protagonist. Throughout his productive career, which mostly consisted of stories about men (masters and apprentices; tyrannical warlords; swordsmen going up against other swordsmen), Kurosawa usually relegated the other half of the human race to roles of supporting stature or the incredibly bizarre. There are exceptions, of course, but women were seldom subjected to direct sympathy in his films. It's all the more surprising (and impressive) that here, he should have chosen to project some of his country's postwar feelings through a female protagonist. What's even more exciting is the realization that Kurosawa would bestow that challenging role upon none other than a young Setsuko Hara. And while No Regrets for Our Youth is not a pinnacle in either of their careers, it is, nonetheless, a fascinating and engrossing piece of 1940's cinema.

In the onset, the film looks like a love triangle between Yukie Yagihara who is the daughter of a university professor (played by Setsuko Hara), a politically minded scholar Ryukichi Noge (played by Susumu Fujita), and a meek law student Itokawa (played by Akitake Kono). This beginning plot, along with everything else in the film, begins to rupture when Japan prepares to enter World War II. Speaking publicly against the surmounting tension results in college professors being forced into resignation, students abandoning their education, and riots breaking out on campuses throughout Japan. In these heated moments, Yukie comes closer to understanding her longing for Ryukichi, who is passionately resisting the war effort, while Itokawa quietly slinks away. Years pass before Yukie meets up with the two men again, this time in Tokyo. The law student is now a prosecutor; the freedom fighter has spent time in prison and still maintains an effort to prevent Japan from going to war. Yukie and Ryukichi spend a short time of bliss together before Japanese society starts turning on those trying to save it from a doomed effort.

Kurosawa's early-career film is not the romantic story its plot description would suggest; it's an examination of one person's attempt to discover meaning in what would ultimately turn out to be a very bad time for Japan. Although the film's time span stretches from 1933 to the end of the war, we don't see the actual conflict. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are never even mentioned. For Kurosawa is not out to state the obvious (war is a horrible thing); he's examining how his own country reacted in the moments leading up to tragedies that could have ultimately been avoided, and how certain freedoms were sequestered in prewar Japanese society. The aggressive turn on people opposing international violence is represented by a cynical police inspector (the great Takashi Shimura). He stands for the cruelty and ignorance that was being exacted upon those in Japan willing to speak out in the name of academic freedom. The key moment: Shimura's police inspector tells Yukie her lover is liable to be executed for treason, admits he has some "good news," and turns on the radio just as Japan's declaration of war is announced. In doing so, he not only taunts her with the fact that her loved one will die, but that his death will have been for nothing. And once again, Kurosawa does not take the cheap route. He does not flash-forward to show us the physical consequences of World War II—to tell us how the Shimura character misunderstood the world. Kurosawa expresses trust in the audience's intelligence and allows the message to come based on what we see and what we already know.

The idea of Setsuko Hara acting in a film by Kurosawa is nothing short of divine—so are the results. Hara demonstrates humanizing brilliance, something she would continue to do again and again throughout her perplexingly short career. From the very beginning of the film, our sympathies go out to this character, and we're emotionally invested with her through the entire narrative. Fujita, Kono, and Shimura are also solid in their much-smaller roles. Denjiro Okochi expresses calm excellence as the father. Two more superb performances come from Haruko Sugimura and Kokuten Kodo as a pair of working class farmers whom Hara lives with toward the end.

But as good as the subject matter and performances are, they only constitute part of what makes the film such an intriguing experience. The other enticing element derives from simply watching a brilliant filmmaker working his wonders. Now, in complete honesty, it's somewhat easy to tell Kurosawa was perfecting his craft. So there are some lapses (a scene with Setsuko Hara being followed and taunted by a group of distrusting villagers goes on about twice as long as necessary; a few scenes are missing build-up the director would have insisted upon in later movies; a moment where our heroine faints and tumbles down a flight of stairs is almost unforgivably clumsy) but it's still fascinating to see developing genius. The images are rich with symbolism, such as when Fujita's scholar Ryukichi Noge talks about maintaining the appearance of a normal life, his shadow blatantly plastered on the wall in front of him—a clever hint at the double life he is leading.

The musical score by Tadashi Hattori is perfectly competent but not exactly memorable. It fulfills its function (an early picnic scene is lightweight and cheery; somber moments are low and melancholy) without exactly leaving a big impression. There is one exception. It occurs late in the film, when Hara starts helping a farmer plow her field. In this emotional and symbolic highlight, Hattori's score starts building upon motifs and patterns, the tempo increasing along the way. The score, teamed with Kurosawa's sense of composition and Asakazu Nakai's magnificent night-time cinematography, results in what is probably the film's most mesmerizing scene.

Oddly enough, my conclusion that No Regrets for Our Youth is not one of Kurosawa's masterpieces turned out to be part of the fun in watching it and re-watching it. It's always exciting to reflect on the early segment of a master's career and ponder what he was thinking at the time and how he would continue to express his ideas in the decades to come. In the case of this film, it's fun to observe while still keeping in mind that this came from the same man who would later give us classics such as Seven Samurai (1954), The Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojimbo (1961), Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985). There is genius developing here, and it's fun to watch it grow.