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No Regrets for our Youth: Is Yukie a feminist symbol or a humanist Kurosawa hero?

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    Ugetsu

    No Regrets for our Youth stands out in Kurosawa’s oeuvre as the only film focusing on a single strong female lead. This is in complete contrast to the other ‘greats’ of the period, with Mizoguchi, Ozu and Naruse having made numerous films with core female characters.

    The film is commonly described as a strongly feminist film, with Yukie described by Mellen as:

    ..[expressing] the very potential of the Japanese woman that has been so often, during all these long centuries, left wasted and latent.

    It is striking how much of the feminist writings on Japanese films I’ve read focus on Yukie as in many ways a superior feminist icon than even the great characters filmed by Mizoguchi and Ozu, otherwise considered more ‘feminist’ directors than Kurosawa.

    In support of the notion that Yukie was deliberately created as a symbol of a new type of post-war woman and a critique of traditional gender roles, the film has a number of elements that focus on her gender. Most strikingly is the scene where her work in the fields is contrasted to her ladylike piano playing. Mellen again:

    In fact, Yukie is at once more beautiful and vital as a bedraggled peasant, hair awry, than she was as a spoiled schoolgirl. the very aesthetic standard regarding “femininity” is called into question by a new social perception, for the image of the woman as painted doll becomes as vapid as it is dead when compared to the vitality of Yukie once she has discovered something for which “to live”.

    There are other clear indications that Yukies gender is central to the film and identity. Throughout the film, she is largely depicted in contrast to the male figures. She stands out at the beginning against the uniformed students. She becomes a traditional supportive Japanese wife, then a traditional supportive Japanese daughter-in-law. At the end, she talks about trying to help the hardship of the peasant women.

    But in interpreting her this way, she seems utterly inconsistent with Kurosawa’s central concerns. As Mellen implies in the quote above, the closest character to her in Kurosawa’s work is that quintessential Kurosawa ‘hero’, Watanabe in Ikiru.

    Ikiru of course, is not a film about the difficulties of being a mid ranking bureaucrat in Japan. It is generally (correctly) seen as a humanist film – a film about the central concerns of living a life – Watanabe’s background is just a narrative convenience. But there are clear parallels between the characters (as with many other central characters in Kurosawas films). They are both very ‘ordinary’ and not particularly likable at the start. Both are thrust into difficult situations by circumstances out of their control. And both, after many trials and errors, find a sort of happiness and contentment in finding a central meaning to their lives – and crucially the meaning comes from something very personal – successes that many other people would consider irrelevant or too minor to be worth considering.

    So in this context, Yukie’s gender is irrelevant. No Regrets for our Youth can be seen as a film entirely consistent with Kurosawa’s central concerns. It is just that for reasons of the circumstances of the films making, it was more convenient to make his central character female.

    So is it perhaps better to see No Regrets for our Youth as a typical Kurosawa film with its strong humanistic theme focusing on self actualization, rather than as an outlier ‘feminist’ statement?

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    cocoskyavitch

    So is it perhaps better to see No Regrets for our Youth as a typical Kurosawa film with its strong humanistic theme focusing on self actualization, rather than as an outlier ‘feminist’ statement?

    Why choose, Ugetsu? I think it both at once-a “feminist” statement and a humanist one. Here’s the drill: feminism is humanism for women.

    I’m being a bit glib, but I really mean that it is hard for anyone to see their own fishbowl-so women often were not considered relevant to issues of social change-

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    Vili Maunula

    I’m with Coco here in thinking that it’s not an either-or-question. However, I personally feel that No Regrets for Our Youth better succeeds as a humanist film than a feminist one. It also seems to be very political, perhaps even more so than it is humanist or feminist.

    I therefore don’t think that Yukie’s gender is irrelevant, but I would say that neither is Watanabe’s profession. Ikiru, like No Regrets, appears to be operating on a number of levels simultaneously — including the social, political and personal.

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    Ugetsu

    Hmmm, I don’t think I phrased my question correctly. Of course the film can be read in various different ways. What I’m really asking is whether No Regrets should correctly be seen as an outlier in Kurosawa’s films (as seems to be the view of most critics), or whether it should be seen instead as an early example of his humanist concerns. I think this question is crucial to whether we consider Kurosawa’s early films (i.e. before Drunken Angel) to be considered apart from his later films.

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    cocoskyavitch

    …or whether it should be seen instead as an early example of his humanist concerns.

    Yep. Like that, Ugetsu.

    I therefore don’t think that Yukie’s gender is irrelevant, but I would say that neither is Watanabe’s profession. Ikiru, like No Regrets, appears to be operating on a number of levels simultaneously — including the social, political and personal.

    Yes, Vili, like that.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: What I’m really asking is whether No Regrets should correctly be seen as an outlier in Kurosawa’s films (as seems to be the view of most critics), or whether it should be seen instead as an early example of his humanist concerns.

    I have started to type a reply to this question at least three times now, but I always end up deleting what I have written. It’s one tricky question that you have asked there, Ugetsu.

    On the one hand, I wonder if your question makes any sense. No Regrets was part of Kurosawa’s journey, so I would definitely not consider it any less off a “Kurosawa film” than any other that he directed. To compare it to his whole “oeuvre” feels meaningless and anachronistic. After all, at the time of filming, Kurosawa himself surely only had the films that he had made before No Regrets to consider. Therefore, a better question would be whether No Regrets fits in with the films that were made before it. But this is perhaps me (deliberately?) misunderstanding your question.

    On the other hand, if we do look at No Regrets with the benefit of hindsight, we can of course compare it to Kurosawa’s other works and their themes. Whether that says anything about No Regrets, I don’t know, but then again it is probably totally impossible for us to approach the film without taking into account Kurosawa’s other films, considering that we cannot just unwatch and totally forget what we know about them. In any case, I would say that there is a clear connection between No Regrets and Kurosawa’s other works. As I mentioned earlier, I consider there to be more humanism than for instance feminism in the film.

    Finally, I’m not sure if I haven’t already posted this somewhere (as I said, I have started typing an answer to this post at least three times now, and have lost track of what I have posted and what deleted!), but I think that the divide between Kurosawa’s “early works” and the rest of his films is a little artificial. That division is probably mainly due to the former poor availability of the early films, the fact that Kurosawa was still developing his directorial style (not that he ever stopped developing it, but he wasn’t yet the master craftsman that he became later), and Kurosawa’s own declaration of Drunken Angel as the first film where he could do what he wanted (despite it too being altered due to censorship). The bottom line however is that already at the time of directing his debut work, Kurosawa was an adult of 32 years of age, as well as a well-read individual with a background in both creating and discussing arts. I would think that by that time, he had already developed as an individual to a point where he held certain views and concerns that would stay with him for the rest of his life. At this point in his career, he may not have always been fully able to express what he wanted to say, but I don’t see why No Regrets or the films before it should be automatically considered somehow different (or “lesser”) works than the later films, if judged on content alone. I think that there is quite a lot in them.

    I’m still not sure if I answered your actual question, Ugetsu! But thanks for asking it, it’s been in my mind for the past week.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    but I think that the divide between Kurosawa’s “early works” and the rest of his films is a little artificial.

    Yes, this is pretty much what I’m getting at, even if I’m not being very coherent at expressing it. I’ve been puzzling over how this idea that the ‘real’ Kurosawa only started making films from Drunken Angel onwards, especially as Richie never seemed to buy into it (although I think he alludes to the idea sometimes). I do think its become a sort of critical shorthand, a way to just dismiss the earlier films. But I also suspect that Kurosawa himself seemed to be quite keen to distance himself from his earlier films, which makes me all the more intrigued as to whats is hidden there that he wanted to hide! I think that if there are clues to it, they are to be found in No Regrets for our Youth, and I’m pretty sure it comes down to Kurosawa being far more politically radical than he himself was comfortable about acknowledging later.

    I’m still not sure if I answered your actual question, Ugetsu! But thanks for asking it, it’s been in my mind for the past week.

    Well, I wasn’t really looking for an answer! Its just something thats been bothering me for some time too after having enjoyed watching these earlier films. When I started this Kurosawa journey I put off watching his early ones, thinking it would be a bit of a chore. But on the contrary, I find them absolutely fascinating, but far harder to ‘read’ than his later films. I do think there is very fertile ground here for deeper analysis, and I’m coming to the conclusion that the best way to do it is to ignore everything Kurosawa said about the period, I think he was being quite deliberately disingenuous in his autobiography and later interviews.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: But I also suspect that Kurosawa himself seemed to be quite keen to distance himself from his earlier films

    This is an interesting suggestion, especially considering that his autobiography concentrated solely on the early films. Do you think that the autobiography was from his part a deliberate exercise in rewriting his story? My recollection is that by and large he remembers the early films with warmth and love in both the autobiography and the interviews that I have read.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    Do you think that the autobiography was from his part a deliberate exercise in rewriting his story? My recollection is that by and large he remembers the early films with warmth and love in both the autobiography and the interviews that I have read.

    Well, now you have me questioning my memory of what I’ve read. I thought he only really wrote with enthusiasm about Rashomon (or maybe thats just fresh in my memory as its near the end of the book). My impression from his autobiography and the various interviews, etc., is that he had good memories of Sanshiro Sugata, The Most Beautiful, Tigers Tail, Wonderful Sunday and Drunken Angel, but is dismissive in one way or another of his other films (i.e. most of his films between the end of the war and Drunken Angel). I thought he was particularly dismissive of No Regrets, which I would have thought was significant as its the most overtly political of his films.

    To an extent, I’m also perhaps extrapolating a little from Richies writings. I know the usual complaint about Richie, that he never makes entirely clear which are his opinions and which information he gleaned personally from Kurosawa, but I’ve always had the impression that his relative unenthusiasm for the early post war films was derived from Kurosawa himself. But having said that, Prince and some others are even less enthusiastic about that period, and I do wonder where the original source of this dissatisfaction comes from.

    Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but the thing I found quite striking about the autobiography is how little information Kurosawa gives us about the politics of the period and his role in it. He never specifies in any detail what sort of radical work he was engaged in during the 1930’s, and he glosses over what must have been hugely contentious issues, such as the post war studio strikes. Yet we know he was an intensely political individual. I’m inferring from this that for one reason or another, he wished to disassociate himself from opinions he held in that period. Perhaps because he changed his views, or perhaps he was aware that if he became known for a particular political viewpoint, all his films would be analysed through that lens forever.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: Yet we know he was an intensely political individual.

    I wonder, was he really political, in the sense of taking part in politics, or were the things that he was interested in simply things that also happen to be at the centre of most political discourse? I would think that the latter was the case, that Kurosawa was more interested in the issues than the politics, so to speak. That is also how I understand he left the leftist movement in his late teens. He considered the ideology interesting and important, but the actual politics just didn’t engage him.

    But I could very well be totally mistaken here. I’m totally basing this on my interpretation of the autobiography and the interviews, and as you suggested, he may have been deliberately misleading us at times.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    I wonder, was he really political, in the sense of taking part in politics, or were the things that he was interested in simply things that also happen to be at the centre of most political discourse? I would think that the latter was the case, that Kurosawa was more interested in the issues than the politics, so to speak.

    Yes, to clarify, I meant he was interested in political ideas, as opposed to being interested in party politics. He clearly had little interest in the usual arguments between, or within political parties, but I’m sure he was very interested in how politics affected individuals and society as a whole.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: Yes, to clarify, I meant he was interested in political ideas, as opposed to being interested in party politics. He clearly had little interest in the usual arguments between, or within political parties, but I’m sure he was very interested in how politics affected individuals and society as a whole.

    That certainly seems to have been true!

    Ugetsu: I’m inferring from this that for one reason or another, he wished to disassociate himself from opinions he held in that period. Perhaps because he changed his views, or perhaps he was aware that if he became known for a particular political viewpoint, all his films would be analysed through that lens forever.

    It is very much a possibility. In a few interviews, he did express a sense of disappointment for his own lack of action during the war, and considered that due to his inaction during the war years, he was not qualified to really criticise what happened. Whether that can be taken as an admission of guilt, I don’t know.

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    lawless

    I hadn’t been looking at the threads regarding No Regrets for Our Youth, seeing as I haven’t watched the film yet, so this is a little after the fact, but at the risk of piling on, I think it’s both an outlier, in the sense that it’s the only film of his in which the protagonist, and thus the POV, is female (leaving aside The Most Beautiful, which as a propaganda film is a special case), and an expression of his humanist concerns. We’re just not used to an expression of his humanist concerns featuring a female protagonist. 🙂

    I think he expressed his own concerns in all his movies (except Sanshiro Sugata II and the collaboration he later disavowed, the name of which escapes me for the moment), just not in as clear and direct a way as he would have liked, until Drunken Angel.

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    lawless

    I’ve returned to this thread now that I’ve watched No Regrets For Our Youth to say that I don’t even think this is a feminist film. While main character is a woman, and the film is told from her POV, the film is all about her relations with two men and what she does for the one of the two whom she marries up until the very end, when she discovers her true vocation through the work she’s done with Noge’s parents. Her sense of mission was sparked by Noge and she lived her life through Noge.

    The true feminist movie would be about what she does with herself thereafter. What she finds through working with Noge’s parents is a community that needs and welcomes her; that’s what she was lacking before.

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    Her sense of mission was sparked by Noge and she lived her life through Noge.

    I don’t disagree that her sense of mission was sparked by Noge, but is it true to say that she lived her life through Noge? I would have thought that Noge would not have approved of her decision to go to his parents – he would have hoped she would stay in Tokyo to keep up the fight – he was a political reformer, not a social reformer. My interpretation of Yukies growth is that she actually moved on from Noge in the fields – she discovered her own path, not Noges or her fathers.

    The true feminist movie would be about what she does with herself thereafter. What she finds through working with Noge’s parents is a community that needs and welcomes her; that’s what she was lacking before.

    I think again this comes down to our interpretation of the final scene. I know I’m outnumbered on this, but I still can’t get out of my head that the scene in the truck indicates that while she is committed to the village, and the villagers love and admire her now, she is still ‘apart’ from them. As a middle class Kyoto girl, she can never truly be one of them. Her decision to stay with them is a political one – she is devoting herself to helping them, but will always be something of an outsider (a ‘blow-in’ as we would call her in Ireland).

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    lawless

    Ugetsu – I should probably qualify the statement to say that what she does after Noge’s death is on her own initiative, but since she’s going to Noge’s parents to attempt to reconcile them to their son in a way he couldn’t during his lifetime, I think it’s fair to say that Noge’s comments prompt it and that she views it as a mission from or for Noge’s benefit as well as her own. I’m not as sure as you are that Noge would have disapproved.

    Isn’t it possible that she can be an outsider and still consider herself part of something larger and more important than anything she could do back in Kyoto? In fact, being an outsider may give her a clearer, more objective view. It’s pretty clear that she doesn’t see a life for herself in Kyoto now, nor does she want it.

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    I think it’s fair to say that Noge’s comments prompt it and that she views it as a mission from or for Noge’s benefit as well as her own. I’m not as sure as you are that Noge would have disapproved.

    True – thinking it through, maybe Yukie saw herself as addressing Noge’s one ‘regret’ – his treatment of his parents, so even though he may not have approved, she saw herself as doing what he should have done.

    Its an interesting contrast though between Noge and Itokawa – Noge has his one ‘regret’ as being the impact of his political life on his parents, while Itokawa took the opposite route – fulfilling his filial duty while having (presumably) regrets about how he never followed through on his youthful idealism. Yukie healed the damage caused by Noge on his parents, but there was nobody around to repair the damage caused by conformists like Itokawa. Perhaps this gives us a reason for Yukies refusal to allow Itokawa to visit Noges grave. She knew that would allow him to heal some of his regrets, so she was cutting off that option for him. She was forcing him to have his own regrets, while she was freeing up Noge’s spirit by ensuring his parents were cared for.

    Isn’t it possible that she can be an outsider and still consider herself part of something larger and more important than anything she could do back in Kyoto? In fact, being an outsider may give her a clearer, more objective view. It’s pretty clear that she doesn’t see a life for herself in Kyoto now, nor does she want it.

    I’m sure thats how it was intended to be seen. But I think from the perspective of the contemporary audience in what is a very group-oriented society, this would have seemed a very lonely path to take, however admirable it may be. I suspect that for many contemporary Japanese, to be unhappy within your own ‘in-group’ would be seen as preferable than the loneliness of seeking out some other lifestyle. Hence (again, my minority opinion), that ambiguous look on Yukies face at the very end.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: Its an interesting contrast though between Noge and Itokawa – Noge has his one ‘regret’ as being the impact of his political life on his parents, while Itokawa took the opposite route – fulfilling his filial duty while having (presumably) regrets about how he never followed through on his youthful idealism. Yukie healed the damage caused by Noge on his parents, but there was nobody around to repair the damage caused by conformists like Itokawa.

    That’s a brilliant take on the film! It never occurred to me to see the characters in those terms.

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