Tagged: no regrets for our youth, setsuko hara
I recently took another look at “No Regrets for Our Youth” (first time I’d seen it in probably 4-5 years) and found myself reassessing my interpretations of the movie’s themes and subject matter. Before, I thought it was just a simple endorsement of Japanese anti-militarism (something the occupation would’ve loved), but now I see it in a somewhat different light. I’m not of the opinion that this film is some kind of a masterpiece, but it is the first movie in Kurosawa’s career that I find immensely fascinating and it is a film I find myself thinking about a lot lately.
I recently put my thoughts together into an article. I would love to hear feedback/different interpretations from other users on this site!
No Regrets for Our Youth: A Retrospective on Kurosawa’s Postwar Gem
Thanks Patrick, I really enjoyed that, a very interesting perspective – it certainly addresses one thing that puzzled me about the film – Hara’s characters relentless a-politicism. I haven’t watched in a few years, I must give it another look.
Great analysis, thanks for sharing. Hara becomes a very strong woman, not typical of Kurosawa.
Any thoughts on why he didn’t have more women like her in his films?
Chomei: I bow to Villi and Patrick on this, but I think it may have something to do with the kind of dramatic themes which were of interest to Kurosawa and which arguably did not pay much attention to female psychology or for any kind of male-female or gender issues for that matter. One commentator has gone so far as to remark, perhaps unkindly, that Kurosawa’s films’ “almost complete lack of interest in erotic matters aligns them somewhat with adolescent masculine fantasies, in which adventure always takes precedence over eros”. In this respect, as disjointed a film as No Regrets is (due to a great extent to issues of censorship, etc.) could one suggest that it remains as one of his more “mature” films?
For a different perspective on Kurosawa and female characters, see this prior discussion. Summary: The two women active on this site (Coco and me), as well as some others, don’t agree that Kurosawa’s female characters are more superficial or less impactful than his male characters. There simply are fewer of them and they’re less likely to have leading roles – something that varied over time, too, with women playing larger roles in earlier films.
First off, thanks to everyone who has commented on–and enjoyed–my analysis of No Regrets for Our Youth. I myself have never subscribed to the notion that Kurosawa was closed-minded, semi-misogynistic, what-have-you, when it came to women in his films. I don’t think anyone’s ever questioned that he was a predominately male-centric director, but to argue he had no interest in women outside of them being objects of desire, bizarre and frightening villainesses, staples of domestic life (housewives), etc. seems to me to be a very, very crass generalization. Just because his movies didn’t feature many female leads doesn’t necessarily mean he had no interest in women. After all, characters can be integral to a story without necessarily having the role of protagonist.
I think it was Joan Mellen who once wrote that women in Kurosawa films, at best, only imitated truths men discovered for themselves (I don’t have a direct quote, so feel free to correct me if I’m wrong or if it was a different author who said this). But I would argue (and so have others–see Dolores Martinez’s excellent essay on the women in Seven Samurai) that in many cases it was actually women who helped men realize errors of their ways, make changes for the better, etc. In Sanjuro, it’s the Takako Irie character who helps Mifune realize killing is pointless and wrong; it’s because of her that he subsequently becomes morose and even angry whenever he’s forced to draw his sword on someone. In One Wonderful Sunday, it’s the wife who insists on being cheery and positive in spite of the curveballs life throws her way — and it takes the dejected husband the entire movie to come around to realizing he, too, can make the best of what they have.
And then we have the textbook example of an inspiring woman in a Kurosawa film. In Ikiru, our (male) protagonist, Watanabe, spends the first half of the movie moping over the fact that he only has a few months to live, that he’s wasted his whole life accomplishing nothing. Instead of setting out to atone for this, he starts looking for a way to blow all the money he’s saved up. He first turns to a man (the author) for help, but that ends in total disaster. All the author shows him is how to waste money on a night of short-lived pleasures (which, for Watanabe, aren’t even that enjoyable). By contrast, it’s the spunky young girl with the courage and the determination to find a fulfilling line of work who inspires “the mummy” to find a way to live–to really live. (Watanabe flat-out states this during the famous Happy Birthday scene.) Toyo may not have had a direct answer as to what Watanabe could do under his circumstances, but she was the key figure in him coming around to finding his personal salvation.
Speaking of which, was it not a group of women who, at the beginning of the film, had the good idea of turning a cesspool into a playground, which subsequently becomes Watanabe’s mission?
I could keep listing examples, but right here we can see Kurosawa did provide female characters with important and essential roles in his movies, even though the stories he told were, again, predominately about men.
Lawless and Patrick: Thanks for your very insightful comments (and Patrick’s analysis), which are very enlightening. However, with respect, I am not sure you both adequately addressed Chomei’s question which I find fascinating: why Kurosawa did not have more women like Hara’s character Yukie (very strong, not typical) in his movies. Even Lawless admits “There simply are fewer of them” in his films without really stating why Lawless thinks this is (if I missed this somewhere I apologize); and Patrick, notwithstanding extolling “inspiring” women, says that Kurosawa was “predominantly male-centric”, his stories “predominantly about men” and that “bits and pieces of Yukie’s characterization sometimes resurfaced through protagonists in Kurosawa’s predominately male-centric filmography” – why only “bits and pieces”? I hope I am not belaboring the point, and I am not suggesting Kurosawa is incapable of, or did not include, strong female characters in his works-what I am wondering is, how much of an interest in women in leading roles did he have, and, since it seems to me that this interest was to a noticeable extent lacking, why this was. One reason I am wondering about this is because of his success with the character Yukie in No Regrets – this movie alone confirms that he was not antagonistic towards the idea of women in strong leading roles. If my suggestion earlier as to the reason is wrong or simplistic, then I think maybe Ugetsu might be closer to the answer with the comment “I think his [Kurosawa’s] primary concern was the structure of the narrative, not the fine points of character” If Ugetsu is correct, could it be that such a concern would naturally gravitate to an emphasis on men in leading roles over women? (and not to over-generalize as I acknowledge other exceptions, like Rhapsody in August).
Mugibuefan – I was referring to female characters, not strong female characters. And I can’t tell if Chomei literally meant strong female characters or main female characters. Side or secondary characters can be strong (every female character in Seven Samurai, for example; the women in Sanjuro and the many of the women in Dodesukaden; the tubercular girl in Drunken Angel). Evil characters can be strong (Throne of Blood, Red Beard, Ran). Characters who might not qualify as strong can still be interesting, like the daughter in The Bad Sleep Well. Strength need not be the sine qua non for male or female characters.
As for strong main characters, there’s the lead in The Most Beautiful, the fiancee in One Wonderful Sunday (the couple is engaged, not married, which gives a different rationale to her refusing his advances), the grandmother in August Rhapsody and Hara’s character in The Idiot as well as in No Regrets for our Youth. Although not a main character exactly, the singer in Scandal also plays a pivotal role in the plot, as does the colleague in Iriku.
Otherwise as people have said Kurosawa told more stories set in a predominantly male milieu. But that doesn’t diminish the female characters he has, who as I argue in the linked post have agency to a degree unusual given how many of them are side or secondary characters. After all, he wasn’t interested in domestic drama and he wanted to say things about a society largely dominated by men. I certainly prefer him playing to his interests rather than doing movies he didn’t have his heart in. Mizoguchi, Ozu and Naruse had this covered. And in the end the question is an empty one because without bringing Kurosawa back from the dead and insisting he answer there is no way to know. It’s all speculation and conjecture and says more about the respondent than Kurosawa.
That’s another stunning article Patrick, and hands-down one of the most interesting ones that I have read on No Regrets for Our Youth. You argue your point very well. Thanks for sharing!
To offer a countering perspective, have you read Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto’s take on the film in his book Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema? The chapter on No Regrets for Our Youth is one of the longest in the book, and he passionately argues against “the depoliticized rewriting of Kurosawa’s film narrative and the image of Kurosawa as a middle-of-the-road humanist”, which he sees Donald Richie’s analysis of the film effectively doing.
Yoshimoto himself places the film very squarely at the centre of a socio-political discussion of war responsibility, postwar guilt and victim consciousness. In his take, and I tend to read the film very similarly, Yukie’s journey and growth could be described as a reflection of that “‘self’ for Japan” which you quote from Kurosawa in the conclusion of your essay. In Yoshimoto’s view, the nature of this “self” (I am using Kurosawa’s term from your article, not Yoshimoto’s) has become increasingly problematic in the immediate postwar environment of occupied Japan, and Yoshimoto sees No Regrets for Our Youth primarily as “resistance to the Occupation’s attempt to propagate their version of recent Japanese history”, which one could say equates to forcefully trying to redefine that “self”.
In the quote that you mention in your conclusion, Kurosawa says that he believed that “it was necessary to respect the ‘self’ for Japan to be reborn”. I believe that he saw that the Occupation era offered no such respect, and therefore no opportunity for the country to heal. Now, I fully recognise that this has become something of a hobby horse of mine, but like Yoshimoto, I do genuinely tend to see Kurosawa’s post-war films as a series of attempts to resist and undermine the US led social changes that were taking place at the time — or perhaps more accurately, the manner in which those changes were implemented. The choices that Yukie has to make in the film are parallel to the choices Japanese society as a whole were forced to wrestle with during the war, whether they liked it or not, and the situation in which she finds herself at the very end, in post-war Japan, is visibly uncomfortable, out-of-place, repressed. As that truck rolls down the country road, her face bears a trauma that remains unresolved, a wound that has not really been attended to.
In other words, the way I see it, No Regrets for Our Youth is not really a film about pre-war or wartime politics, but first and foremost a commentary about the post-war social environment in which it was made. Its political nature is highly contemporary, not a reflection of the past, and in my view the emphasis in the title is not on the words “our youth” (wartime past), but on “no regrets”. The reason there can be no regrets is because proper reflection is not permitted since both the present and the past are dictated by someone else, the winners. And we all know what the Greeks said about the unexamined life.
As for the topic of women in Kurosawa’s films that others have raised, I think his typical label of a “masculine director” is a little overblown and probably the result of his most popular films having been samurai films. As has been mentioned, Kurosawa seemed to be more interested in issues than characters, and as a result none of his characters — male or female — are particularly complex or rounded. No doubt the prevalence of male leads over female ones also stemmed from his writing team being solely men (you write what you know) and the availability of marketable acting talent. Perhaps also Kurosawa’s temperament and the kind of people he could get along with.
That’s a very interesting take and offers a lot of food for thought. I actually have not read Yoshimoto’s book (it’s on my to-buy list), but I shall definitely remember this conversation the day I pick it up.
I endorse everything Vili says in the last paragraph above.
I really appreciate everyone’s comments here with respect to a very significant fim of Kurosawa (including lawless’ response to me whose last paragraph includes a “slam” that maybe was deserved).
Villi: (a) You have commented extensively on Regrets here and elsewhere on the blog and your expertise and that of Patrick Galvan on Kurosawa have been very impressive and indicative of intensive study of this director. Like Patrick I want to track down Yoshimoto on Regrets – thanks for the reference. What you have said, Villi, about Yoshimoto’s approach would appear to be consistent with what I have observed as a trend in the study of Japanese cinema recently of paying more attention to the “context” of the times, political and otherwise in which the director lived, in studying his work – this contrasts, perhaps, with a more “purist” approach of a Richie. However, see (c) below regarding No Regrets specifically.
(b) Your response to the issue which interests me, i.e the (to me limited) role of women in Kurosawa’s films, and particularly your comment “Kurosawa seemed to be more interested in issues than characters” dovetails with Ugetsu’s similar comment I quoted for which Ugetsu should be given full credit. I realize that these comments as the reason for a male emphasis may be viewed in a sense as a simple and obvious point in observing Kurosawa’s films, and I won’t push it any further except to state that, still, it begs the question as to “Why?” – and I maintain that it interestingly distinguishes Kurosawa in an important sense from many of his Japanese contemporaries (e.g. Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse, Toyoda) and interplays with the commonly raised issue of who among the greats is the more authentically “Japanese” director.
(c) I have to wonder how “sanguine” you can be over Yoshimoto’s perspective or Richie’s (or anyone else’s) in light of the censorship and interference suffered by Kurosawa on various fronts in the making of Regrets; in other words, since we don’t have necessarily as “pure” an expression of Kurosawa’s art in Regrets as in his other films, how does that (as a “meta-critique”) affect to what extent different interpretations of the film can be fairly, accurately and meaningfully assessed ? This is not of course meant to deprive critics from having the fun of making the attempt. But as Patrick stated in his Toho Kingdom retrospective: “there’ll always be a tantalizing ‘What If…?’ quality imbuing this picture. One cannot help but wonder what sort of performance—and character—Hara might’ve evoked had Kurosawa been allowed to shoot the script he wanted.” But what was the script he (and Eijiro Hisaita) wanted and didn’t get?
Thinking about it a bit more, I wonder if there isn’t a way to combine Patrick’s and Yoshimoto’s analyses. One could argue, along Patrick’s excellent reasoning, that Yukie is an inherently apolitical character. However, she also has the misfortune of existing at a time when any action, including non-action, could be interpreted as political. Therein lies the paradox and the central question of the film: are Japanese people responsible for silently conforming to the wartime regime? Hence, as Yoshimoto has suggested, the film as a whole is an inherently political exercise, and primarily concerned about the reality of postwar Japan and the country’s healing process, or rather, the externally mandated lack of it.
Anyway. Yoshimoto’s book is well worth the price of admission. It’s my favourite of the English books that dissect Kurosawa’s full filmography. The first book I reach to.
Mugibuefan, the way I see it, your question about the mechanisms of interpreting the film penetrates the very heart of film studies, or really the interpretive study of any artistic work. Yours is an extremely complex question with no simple answer.
On a basic level, the making of every film is restricted in one way or another. Censorship is just one possibility alongside budgets, available technology, equipment, skills of the personnel (including the primary filmmaker themselves), available time, locations, and so forth. With this in mind, if a filmmaker manages to capture exactly what they had in mind, it is likely they weren’t ambitious enough.
This brings us to the question of the artist’s intentions. Do they actually matter? The post-structuralists killed the artist, Roland Barthes most famously presiding over that particular funeral. But in the past decades, I have noticed the artist stubbornly creeping back from the grave, with rumours of their death if not greatly, at least somewhat exaggerated.
Another question to ask is whether the artist even really knows their intentions. In one of my favourite quotes, when asked to interpret his films, Kurosawa’s answer was that if he could put his intentions into simple words, he would just paint them on big boards and carry those around. But he can’t condense what he wants to say in that way, so he is forced to make films instead, which is more cumbersome, time-consuming and exhausting.
In other words, for Kurosawa the entire reason for making a film is to communicate something that he can’t communicate in any other way. I too am definitely a firm believer in art having the ability to share ideas far beyond the common linguistic domain.
Still, this is not to say that talking about films, as we do here, is futile. It also doesn’t mean that no one could succinctly describe the intended meaning of a film even if the filmmaker themselves is not able to do so.
The way I see it, film studies or any other interpretation of art is in nature a little bit like theoretical physics. However precise our mathematical formulations of the universe, those formulae in themselves are not how the world actually works. They are simply models. But the best models are also extremely good approximations of reality, guiding our understanding of how things seem to function. A good analysis of a film similarly is not the film itself, but it offers insights and guides others to take note of aspects that they may otherwise have not noticed. Readers can then include those aspects in their understanding and interpretation of the film, if they so choose, and end up seeing a film in a new way, going beyond the linguistic description that they have read.
And in the end, I really think that it is a matter of choice. Hence, I would argue that the answer to your question, Mugibuefan, depends on what you are trying to accomplish when you choose to analyse a film. If you are interested in a better understanding of Kurosawa’s biography or some other historical details, the “what ifs” of No Regrets for Our Youth may well be important. On the other hand, if your focus is primarily on the film itself as it exists and you have taken part in the Barthesian murder of the author, those background matters are less interesting, because the film is what it is, and chasing down what it could have or should have been is in that context fairly meaningless.
There are of course many other approaches to film study and the approach you take largely determines what you deem important. Personally, I tend to have a pretty selfish reason for engaging in all of this. For me, thinking about these things is an excellent avenue for self-reflection about who I am, what my place in the universe is, and observing what my reactions to things are and how my thought processes work. That Delpic maxim to know thyself. Within that context, the “what ifs” are sometimes important, at others not. Most of the time they are both.
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