As I continue my quest to (eventually) see and review every Kurosawa film, I come to a film that is noticeably distinct from his others.
Kurosawa’s first post-war film was in many ways a decisive break from his previous work (and also from his future work). Having produced propaganda for the Japanese war regime in the form of such tripe as ‘The Most Beautiful’ (1944), ‘No Regrets For Our Youth’ sees Kurosawa directly attacking the wartime government, and the efforts they made to silence academic freedom in criticising government policy.
Inspired by real events in 1933, the film charts the story of a professor who, along with other lecturers and hundreds of university students, protests against the fascist government’s invasion of Manchuria. The results of the crackdown include prevention of free speech, imprisonment, and in some cases, death. Unexpectedly though, the film takes the novel step of viewing these events through the eyes of the professor’s daughter.
This particular element is a further noteworthy break from Kurosawa’s past and future work. No Regrets For Our Youth is one of the very few Kurosawa films (perhaps the only one), with a female character at its centre. True, ‘The Hidden Fortress’ (1958) has a plot focused around Princess Leia Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), but the character is not particularly well-developed and the role takes second billing to Toshiro Mifune. And while The Most Beautiful does feature a large number of female wartime factory workers, the fabricated atmosphere of the propaganda means there is no legitimacy or authenticity to their depiction. Across his filmography, it becomes evident that Kurosawa is simply not interested in female characters. And sadly, despite breaking with this pattern, No Regrets For Our Youth looks like it is just an exception, rather than changing that perception.
While the film breaks with some typical Kurosawa elements, the film is – as per usual – very strong visually. The lighting and, conversely, use of shadow, is excellent. And the best sequences of the film are actually those without dialogue, so strong are the visuals (and disappointingly weak the dialogue).
An example of this is evident in a scene depicting clashes breaking out at a university protest, which is told superbly through Soviet-era montage interspersed with newspaper headlines, evoking memories of Eisenstein’s ‘Battleship Potemkin’ (1925). And similarly, during the final portion of the film, we see workers toiling in fields to scrape enough food together to survive. Kurosawa chooses to forgo dialogue again, allowing the images to tell the story to the viewer by themselves. The sight of individuals struggling in rain-drenched, muddy fields also evokes memories of Kurosawa’s best known work, ‘Seven Samurai’ (1954). Directing realistic mud was clearly one of Kurosawa’s great strengths.
It has been commented that the film has more elements in common with Yasujiro Ozu’s style, than Kurosawa’s. It is true that No Regrets For Our Youth does not have the feel of a typical Kurosawa film, lacking in both a period medieval setting, and the presence of Toshiro Mifune wielding a giant sword. And it is also true that the presence of Setsuko Hara – who starred in six Ozu films, including ‘Late Spring’ (1949) and ‘Tokyo Story’ (1953) – adds to this feel.
But, the scope of the film is larger than is typical of Ozu’s films, focusing on the national implications, rather than Ozu’s focus on small-scale, personal and familial relationships. And as mentioned before, the excellent cinematography is archetypal of Kurosawa’s energetic, moving camera, rather than Ozu’s still, ground-level shots.
No Regrets For Our Youth marked the start of a spell for Kurosawa where he was evidently interested in post-war Japan, later turning his attention to the American dominance of Japanese society. However, for all the lauding, this film often loses its narrative focus. In this respect, No Regrets For Our Youth remains a film to be watched with more of an academic eye, rather than for consistent enjoyment throughout.