Thursday, January 21, 2010

Kurosawa Centennial: No Regrets for Our Youth

The university students in Kyoto like to march around in their caps while denouncing evil industrialists, but they are not so eager to take direct action. As a result, only the daughter of their professor and her lover emerge as heroic figures in Akira Kurosawa’s No Regrets for Our Youth, a highly politicized story of Japanese war dissenters. Released during the early years of the American occupation of Japan, Regrets is also considered Kurosawa’s only film featuring a female lead protagonist, setting it apart from the rest of Film Forum’s twenty-eight film retrospective celebration of the Kurosawa centennial, where it screens this Monday as half of a double feature of the director’s lesser-known post-war films.

Yukie Yagihara just wants to play the piano and flirt her father’s students. Noge though, is too serious for such frivolities, deeply concerned as he is with Japanese military expansionism in Manchuria. His classmate Itokawa is also duly troubled, but he will cringingly submit to Yagihara’s every whim. However, when Professor Yagihara is fired for his dissenting views, his daughter starts to understand the seriousness of the events unfolding around her.

As in most grand political epics, the professor’s formerly close protégés inevitably take diametrically opposed roads, with Itokawa becoming a government prosecutor while Noge does time in prison. Of course, there is no question who Yagihara will choose when all three wind up in Tokyo several years later. Yet, her romance with Noge is doomed to be short-lived, since the government (and most likely Itokawa) knows Noge is up to something at his think tank (suspiciously dedicated to Chinese area studies).

While addressing pre-war dissent so bluntly in post-war Japan must have been a bit of a touchy proposition, the leftist slant of Regrets probably assured it of a favorable international reception. In fact, it is quite a historically important film simply by virtue of dramatizing the Japanese war resistance, which remains largely overlooked in comparison to their European counterparts. Still, at times the film seems markedly idiosyncratic, as when blaring headlines announce “Academic Freedom Crushed” (but evidently freedom of the press was alive and well). The film even takes a weird Maoist-like turn when Yagihara finds redemption toiling in the rice paddies of her hardscrabble in-laws.

Yes, Kurosawa could make films without Toshirō Mifune. In this case, Susumu Fujita is a reasonably credible Mifune surrogate as the driven Noge, but it is truly Setsuko Hara’s film. She convincingly handles each step of her character’s emotional maturation and political awakening, while unflaggingly holding the audience’s sympathies and attention. Although her romantic chemistry with Fujita is not particularly memorable, her work with Denjirō Ōkōchi ranks as some of the most compelling father-daughter scenes in immortalized on film.

Though Regrets is a very personal story of one woman’s trials and travails, Kurosawa gives it the feel of a sweeping epic. It is an absorbing film, even if it does occasionally trip over its own ideologies and good intentions. Well worth seeing, it screens at Film Forum this coming Monday (1/25).