No Regrets for Our Youth was the second film Akira Kurosawa directed after the end of World War II. (The first was Those Who Make Tomorrow, which was released on May 2, 1946. He was forced to direct it by Toho studio bosses. He disliked making the film and never included it in his list of official credits.) No Regrets for Our Youth is an interesting counterpart to two other films I watched this year, Italy’s Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City) and Germany’s Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Among Us). These three pictures are all early efforts by filmmakers in former Axis powers to come to terms with the enormity of World War II.
Roma, città aperta represents an almost total abnegation of responsibility, which is fair enough, considering the role most Italians played in the war compared with the litany of horrors perpetrated by Germany and Japan. No Regrets for Our Youth is more similar to Die Mörder sind unter uns. Both films are stridently anti-Fascist, but both sidestep the gruesome specifics of what actually went on during the war.
Setsuko Hara stars as Yukie, the daughter of a university professor with leftist leanings. (Hara would only work with Kurosawa once more, when she starred in his film The Idiot in 1951, but she was one of Yasujirô Ozu’s favorite actresses, and starred in six of his films from 1949 to 1961.) The film begins immediately after the 1933 University at Takikawa protests against the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Yukie is courted by two young men, Ryukichi Noge (Susumu Fujita) and Itokawa (Akitake Kôno). Itokawa is sensible and boring, while Noge is a political firebrand and hot-headed. Yukie is naturally drawn to Noge, but he is arrested after a demonstration and spends four years in prison.
When he is released, he seems to be a changed man; broken in some essential way. Yukie packs up and moves to Tokyo, where she lives for three years, toiling away in a variety of menial jobs. Itokawa and Noge both re-enter her life, and she ends up marrying Noge, who is now involved in espionage. Eventually he is arrested by Imperial forces, and Itokawa, who is now a lawyer, steps in to defend him.
No Regrets for Our Youth is a film with two distinct halves. The second half, in which Yukie goes to visit Noge’s parents, is visually and dramatically stronger than the first. Noge’s parents are both simple farmers living in a remote village. They are terrorized by the other villagers because their son was a spy, and they never go out during the day, only planting at night. Yukie decides to stay with them and fight against adversity, finding value in tilling the land.
It would be decades, of course, before most filmgoers in the West would see this film. The first Kurosawa film to make any impact outside of Japan was Drunken Angel (1948), and Kurosawa didn’t have a true breakout success until Rashomon (1950), which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951.
No Regrets for Our Youth is a good film, but it’s not a great one. The performances from the lead actors are excellent, especially from Hara. She ages and grows over the course of the film in a realistic way, which is important when a film covers a period of many years. The story is involving, but not exactly what I would call “gripping.” The scenes in the rural village have a distinctly Soviet flavor to them, and I believe that Kurosawa made this film in an atmosphere of heavy censorship and control by occupying forces.
This is the earliest Kurosawa film I’ve seen, so I don’t know what his pre-war films are like, but it seems to me that he really came into his own as an artist starting in the late ’40s, when he reworked American and European stories and film techniques for pictures like Stray Dog (1949) and High and Low (1963), two of the best police procedurals ever made; Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961), two samurai films that drew heavily from American westerns and were in turn copied over and over by directors making actual westerns; and his reimaginings of Shakespearean dramas set in feudal Japan, Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985).