A 1946 Kurosawa movie focused on a woman

“Waga Seishun ni Kuinashi” (No Regrets for Our Youth, 1946) is more interesting as a phenomenon than enjoyable as a film. What makes it interesting:

(1) It is Kurosawa’s first postwar movie, and

(2) one of the first Japanese movies passing the censors of the US (“Allied”) occupation of Japan, which is all the more striking, because,

(3) it celebrates a leftist opponent of militarism and fascism during the early 1930s. That the MacArthur regime permitted commemoration of what not only appears to be (but is named as) a communist is outright startling.

(4) The movie is the closest to be an autobiographical film by Kurosawa (up until his last, “Madadayo”). Kurosawa was a leftist opponent of the fascist militarism of the 1930s, and shocked his parents by first becoming an art student and then undertaking an entry-level job in the film industry. (The autobiographical component is limited in that the movie focuses on a female student who shocks everyone by going to work as a peasant with the parents after he is killed in police custody.)

(5) The film focuses on a woman, unlike other Kurosawa film.

(6) The actress in the lead role is Hara Setusko , closely associated (by appearing in many movies directed by) Ozu (though also memorable in Kurosawa’s adaptation of The Idiot). The mother-in-law is also played by Ozu regular Sugimura Haruko.

(7) Shimura Takashi was already in the Kurosawa repertory company (and in many, many other Kurosawa movies, with the biggest parts being in “Ikiru,” “The Drunken Angel,” and “Seven Samurai”, with a fairly impotant one in the first film Kurosawa directed “Sugata Sanshiro”).

(8) The influence of prewar Soviet cinema, particularly Eisensteinian montage and treatment of seething crowds, is very obvious, along with some Dovzhenko agrarian romanticism (particularly characters lying down, looking at the sky, and the blurred farm labor sequences).

For a hardcore Kurosawa admirer, which I certainly am, and someone unfazed by subtitled black-and-white films, these would seem many and compelling, but the movie severely tried my patience, for three reasons:

(First) and Kurosawa’s fault, is that the first hour is boring: very talky with only a few interesting visual touches (the piano playing and the montages of Yukie (Hara) and of Tokyo, when she moves there. *Yea, yeah, I’ll provide some plot summary eventually…)

(Second) is that the print transferred to DVD is in bad condition and way too dark. (I would suspect this is true of the VHS, too, but don’t know for sure.)

(Third) is that the subtitled are (a) white, (b) relatively small, and (c) wildly ungrammatical. Even for someone with considerable experience of native speakers Japanese and of Chinese languages, it is often difficult to make any sense out of what appears. Articles were seemingly assigned randomly: not there when they are needed and there when they are not needed. The prepositions are practically never correct. There is a lot of subject-verb disagreement and mass nouns are pluralized more often than not.

I jotted down a few of these. My favorite is one that in context I could make sense of:

“Your head is combed like hot water.” (Because the speaker was holding her hand on Yukie’s forehead, I could decode this as “You have a fever” or “You’re running a fever.”)

“Living would relieve cheap shine.”

“I wanted to guide the hot bloody.”

“Now you still haven’t decided like a homeless.”

(I failed to mention the lack of punctuation in the list of aberrances.)

Lines like these are a challenge, and I’d estimate that there are fewer than ten percent of the lines that are not lexically or grammatically marred.

It was an effort of will to get through the first hour—in which idealistic young students are shocked when Yukie’s father is not allowed to lecture any more at their university (ca. 1933 Kyoto), and there is a triangular relationship between Yukie and two of the students (who look like cadets in their uniforms). Yet another strangeness of the subtitles is that Noge, the bespectacled zealot (played by Fujita Susumu), and Itokawa, the more pragmatic (and eventually mustachioed) suitor of Yuki and friend of Noge (played by Kôno Akitake) are called “Wild” and “Hun.”

Noge comes to dinner with Itokawa, Yukie, and his parents (after the school has been shut down altogether and the student groups banned) and says he is going off to China (the just-conquered Manchuria). Yukie has something of a mad scene and decides to move to Tokyo. After the passage of a few years, she runs into Itokawa and meets Noge again. Both are successful in financial institutions of some sort. Yukie is a sort of economic analyst.

After they marry, Itokawa is seized in a restaurant by Police Commissioner “Poison Strawberry” Dokuichigo (Shimura). This and the following scenes of Dokuichigo sneering (Shimura was so good at that!) and interrogating Yukie bring the movie to life (very fraught life, but not longer boring).

Noge dies (offscreen) in police custody and is posthumously branded as being a spy. Yukie is released, plays the piano in obvious hysteria, and decides to go live with Noge’s parents, peasants whom she has never met. They are, not surprisingly, discomfited to have a city girl on their hands, but Yukie throws herself into tilling the fields in ways that would have made Maoists happy when they emptied the universities to “re-educate” students during the 1960s.

Hara is impressive in playing the young woman determined to make herself a model peasant daughter-in-law. The project seems crazy to me, but apparently seemed virtuous to Japanese. It is definitely cinematic and includes some signature Kurosawa scenes of slogging through the mud and heavy rain…

In a rushed coda after Japan loses the war, Noge and Yukie’s father are rehabilitated and honored. Yukie, both in the fields, and restored to upper middle-class life, regularly repeats Noge’s mantra “No regrets in my life, no regrets whatsoever”—which also seems to me borderline crazy, in that he was tortured to death and Yukie suffered greatly as the wife of a much-maligned “spy” (etc.!).

Hara is convincing aging some twenty years, slogging through the rice paddies and destroying her pianist hands. She could do much more than Ozu ever asked her to do! Both Yukie and Noge anticipate the long line of Kurosawa individualists (often embodied by Mifune Toshiro), refusing to do what others expect them to do.

For me, the first great Kurosawa movie is “Drunken Angel” (1948), which teamed Shimura and Mifune (as, respectively, a slum doctor and a tubercular, alcoholic gangster). It also had much social commentary about it (and sympathy for slum-dwellers trying to get along). There are some striking scenes and sequences in the second hour of “No Regrets,” but getting that far is a daunting challenge, and the bewilderment induced by the titles recurs (though there are long stretches of working the fields with no talk to mangle in translation in that last third of the movie).

Kurosawa told Donald Richie that the story of Noge was inspired by a real-life case (Ozaki Hidemi), but that he was asked to leave the subject to a younger director, so had to substitute the second half. This is disconcerting in that I think the second half is much the better one! (The fired professor is based on the firing of Takikawa Yukitoki from the University of Kyoto faculty in 1933, and Ozaki was a student of Professor Takikawa, outraged by his dismissal.)

Less disconcerting is Kurosawa’s memory that he “believed that the only way for Japan to make a new start was to begin respecting the ‘self’ [instead of the usual submission to expectations and the group/family). “I wanted to show a woman who did just that.” In this, he definitely succeeded (though I vigorously dissent from Richie’s claim that the movie is “perfect”). Kurosawa also told Richie that “it was only here and in ‘Rashomon’ that I ever fairly and fully portrayed a woman… [one who] lived by and was true to her feelings.” As Richie notes, Kuorsawa showed this “sternly and uncompromisingly.”

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

An English-subtitled DVD is available in the Criterion Collection Eclipse Postwar Kurosawa set.

 

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