Saturday, April 18, 2009

More than Killers or Victims

Last night I watched Akira Kurosawa's 1946 film No Regrets for Our Youth, his first post World War II film and the first of his movies produced under the yoke of the censorship board issued by the United States, which occupied Japan at the time.

Kurosawa considered Drunken Angel, his 1948 film, the first film he was able to direct without government interference. Without knowing precisely what modifications were made by the censorship board to No Regrets for Our Youth, it nonetheless certainly feels like a hybrid of personal artistic vision and committee interference. It's not a work without value, which makes the more overtly propaganda elements the more frustrating.

The interesting parts of the movie concern a coming of age tale about a woman named Yukie Yagihara, the only female central protagonist in Kurosawa's filmography, played by Setsuko Hara. The only other movie I'd seen Hara in was Mikio Naruse's Meshi, and her performance at the beginning of No Regrets for Our Youth couldn't be more different from the demure but reluctantly assertive woman of the Naruse film. She seems almost like a prototype of Toshiro Mifune's manic performances in Rashomon and Seven Samurai as an oddly twitchy youngster who smashes her hands on her piano and peevishly darts her eyes about to find a contrary point of view for most discussions.

A professor's daughter at a men's university, she's set up early on as the only female in an entirely male circle of friends, which perhaps partly explains her black sheep qualities. A masterful bit of business in the film's beautiful opening sequence set in the Kyoto countryside establishes Yukie's personality, the personalities of the two men who will feature most prominently in her life, Noge and Itokawa, and the dynamics of their relationships;

Both men offer their hands to Yukie as propriety demands while Yukie just smiles uncooperatively as she accepts neither until Noge simply lifts Yukie and carries her the rest of the way across as his classmates applaud. Itokawa turns away, embarrassed, until Yukie tugs his hat twice after turning her back on Noge. Itokawa grins and chases her through the woods.

So we've set up Yukie's social rebelliousness, Noge's brashness and ability to think outside the box, and Itokawa's quick shame for not pleasing the group. All these things play out over the course of the film as Noge becomes a spy for an Allied power while Itokawa passive-aggressively covets Yukie, laughing contemptuously at Noge's modest cover jobs without guessing the truth.

As she's at the centre of the movie's attention, Yukie's motives therefore are hardest to qualify as she tells Itokawa she can't marry him because he would be boring while marrying Noge would mean a life blazing like the sun. One could interpret this as a woman submitting to the stronger man, or, and, I think, more accurately, as a woman who seeks a man who will not submit to her or anyone else.

Unfortunately, the agenda forced on the film to portray as martyrs and heroes those who stood in the way of the old Japanese government derail the character studies somewhat as Yukie's relationship with Noge is flavourless in favour of showing a united, anti-war front.

The movie's title is a bit ironic, actually, as it's asking the audience to regret their former patriotism as it shows Yukie steadfastly not regretting her complicity in Noge's espionage. The last portion of the film shows Yukie as a martyr as she works to exhaustion with Noge's parents to plant rice only to have the fields destroyed by neighbours loyal to the government's push for war.

There's a scene earlier in the film that I rather liked between Yukie and her father, Yagihara-sensei, as she's preparing to leave home to make her own way in Tokyo;

Yagihara-sensei: "You can find a job here in Kyoto. Think of your mother."

Yukie: "I'm just so . . . disgusted with everything. I want to start my life all over again."

Yagihara-sensei: "Living out in the world isn't as simple as you think."

Yukie:"I know. But right now I feel as if I'm not even living. I want to at least go out into the world . . . and see for myself what it means to be alive."

Yagihara-sensei, after thinking a bit: "If you've thought this through, then go. Forge your own way through life. It's worth a try. But remember: You have to take responsibility for your actions. Freedom . . . is something you have to fight for. There will be difficult sacrifices and the heavy burden of responsibility. Remember that."

Yagihara-sensei is talking to his daughter almost like he would to a son in a startlingly feminist scene for this period in Japan that's effective despite the knowledge that equality of the sexes was one of the ideas the American censorship board wished to enforce. A scene like this is actually significantly more feminist than most American cinema at the time, which could be an interesting side effect of the occupiers enforcing social ethics they didn't themselves quite understand.

But I wish more parents talked to their kids like that nowadays. I know, I may sound like a cliché of a bitter old man, "Young people have no accountability!" But it's true--we've become a culture of people who are deathly afraid of accepting blame while demanding absolute freedom. "With great power comes great responsibility" said the guy in Sam Raimi's movies, but maybe not loud enough.

Anyway, this is another theme that's derailed a bit in No Regrets for Our Youth as the latter part of the film seems to interpret it more as "You have to work hard for freedom." The movie desperately needs some internal conflict for Yukie, but she becomes much too resolute much too fast.

But the concept of personal freedom was a very important one to Kurosawa, and I don't think he was entirely at odds with American philosophy. Shots early in the film like these;

Reminded me of shots like these;

from Powell and Pressburger's 1944 English propaganda effort A Canterbury Tale. In some ways, the two films are reflections of each other as Kurosawa uses the beauty of Kyoto as an argument against patriotism while Powell and Pressburger use the beauty of Kent as part of an argument for patriotism. What unites these two aims is a desire to show one's country as something bigger and more complicated than a side in a war. In the English film, it's why England's worth defending, in the Japanese film, it's why Japan still has worth even after great moral mistakes. There are later films that better explore the great societal shame in post war Japan, but you get something of a sense of it here.

My tweets from last night;

You can clean your car with napkins slowly.
A tiny spinach pie is not a meal.
But with ginger snaps you've a meal wholly.
With a certain strange Spartan appeal.

I learned yesterday that at the nearby Greek restaurant called Daphne's that if you want the spanakopita plate you have to specify plate or you will get two very tiny spinach stuffed triangles. I also learned the place doesn't have disposable cutlery, all of which necessitated a trip to Target for plastic cutlery, napkins, and ginger snaps before I went to Tim's.

The napkins came in handy later when washing my car windows . . .

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