#23 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.
Akira Kurosawa saw the replacement of one censorship regime with another at the end of the Second World War. The Imperial needs for feudal spirit and loyalty to lords was replaced by the American need for antipathy towards the militarism that had defined Japanese governmental policy for more than a decade. The whiplash from The Most Beautiful and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail to No Regrets for Our Youth is rather stark. From a thematic point of view, it feels like two different men made the films. The actual story would almost feel more at home in Yosujiro Ozu’s body of work rather than Kurosawa’s, especially considering the presence of the female Japanese actress Setsuko Hara.
The film takes place over more than a decade, starting in 1933 as a university professor of law Yagihara (Denjiro Okochi), his daughter Yukie (Hara), and several of his students, most particularly Noge (Susumu Fujita) and Itokawa (Akitake Kono), walk over a mountain towards Kyoto and the shining ivory tower of the university. They sing a song of academic freedom, interrupted by gunfire and the sight of a dead soldier’s body. Professor Yagihara ends up the center of a political firestorm for…reasons. The main flaw in this film is that there are a lot of generalities around the specifics of the background fights. We never find out what Yagihara says that makes him the target of the Imperial regime, losing his teaching position and sparking the student protests that dominate the early parts of the film. He’s just a symbol for the idea of academic freedom.
This revolt gets led by Noge who throws himself into everything he does, but the protests are unsuccessful. Yagihara is still removed from his position, no other professor resigns in protest, and all of the students, at Yagihara’s own insistence, go back to finish their degrees. All except Noge who runs off to do…something. Again, specifics are in short supply, but whatever it is he ends up in jail for it. Several years pass, Yukie learns typing and foreign languages, and Itokawa comes courting. She turns him down, outright admitting that her life with Itokawa would be boring, and Itokawa brings the recently released from prison Noge to dinner at Professor Yagihara’s house. It’s obvious that Noge isn’t the manic young man he was before, and Yokie sees the man she loves in him. However, he disappears to China for several years more.
In the summer of 1941, Yukie and Itokawa run into each other in Tokyo. Itokawa is married with a child on the way and a public defender, and he has news that Noge has returned to Japan and runs an international policy research office in the city. She runs to Noge who is obviously hiding his real work from the world and from her, and yet they still marry. She loves him, they have a happy few month, and then Noge is arrested after he completes “a project” that the Japanese people will thank him for in ten years (supposedly some kind of sabotage on war-making ability, but, again, we get no specifics). He dies in prison, and Yukie must find solace in her newly widowed life.
This takes up the first 70 minutes or so of the film, and it’s been a handsomely produced but thinly written little melodrama with social importance. It’s when Yukie decides to go and visit Noge’s parents that it gains a different character. I’d been wondering what the point of it all was. There seemed to be some kind of focus on the idea of Yukie wanting to find life in the midst of political discord and war that tore her country apart, but it was always ill-defined as the movie went from one story beat to another. Getting to the Noge farm, Yukie demands Noge’s parents to let her help them farm the land, and she spends the rest of the movie helping Noge’s mother (Haruko Sugimura) hand clear some land and make it a rice paddy. In a story that begins with people walking the crest of a natural monument, a mountain, to find the “ivory tower” of the university, it’s in the working of the land that Yukie finds her self-worth. Even when the locals, who have shunned the Noge family for their son’s status as a spy and traitor, destroy Yukie and Madame Noge’s hard work, Yukie simply gets right back to work.
It’s that extended ending of Yukie finding her place in the rice paddies of her husband’s family that this movie gains the kind of focus and emotional power it seemed to always be looking for. When Itokawa comes to visit Noge’s grave, Yukie tells him off for having done nothing to help her husband, telling him that Noge would not appreciate his visit.
Is this also a piece of propaganda? Most likely. Anything produced had to be approved by the office of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, so a story about how militarism is bad and working the land is good would be the sort of thing that the occupying American forces would appreciate and allow to pass. The thin nature of dealing with the student protests and Noge’s treachery to the Imperial war effort, while based on some real events, feels like kowtowing to certain censorship pressures, though. Militarism = bad seems to be the extent of the intended message, and it ends up creating a narrative confusion that really should have been clearer.
In the end, though, it’s a touching look at a woman finding meaning after the death of her husband. It’s handsome and well-acted, and it’s another move in the right direction for the young Japanese director.