No Regrets for Our Youth was Kurosawa's fifth film, and his first after the end of World War II. The end of the war was a bit of a godsend for Kurosawa, who during the war produced films that were subjected to the utmost scrutiny by the nationalistic Japanese censors.
New censors from the American occupation force would come in to replace the strict Japanese. Although these censors would be far more lenient than the Japanese, they would be quick to deny the release of any film that showed any sort of anti-American sentiment.
No Regrets is an interesting film among Kurosawa's repertoire due to its strong female lead character. Kurosawa's films generally don't feature women in the main role unlike the films of another Japanese great Kenji Mizoguchi.
"Women simply aren't my specialty," Kurosawa once remarked to the legendary Japanese film scholar Donald Richie.
Kurosawa states in his autobiography that the title of the film was born out of the popular post-war phrase in newspapers, "No regrets for our ---".
The film suffered from two setbacks during production. First, against Kurosawa's will the script was re-written because another script was submitted based on the same story. Second, there was a strike at Toho Studios where the film was being made.
No Regrets for Our Youth stars one of Japan's most famous actresses and favorite of the director Yasujiro Ozu, Setsuko Hara. Hara plays the lead role of Yukie, the daughter of a Kyoto University professor who was relieved of his job.
The film takes place over a period of 10 years, beginning in 1933. The film progresses from 1933, to 1938 and then finally to 1941 to the end of the film. These sections act as separate acts within the story, a storytelling technique Kurosawa was fond of.
The first act deals more with the social problem aspect of the picture. The students, in their anger over the loss of academic freedom and rise of an expansionist government, take to the street and riot. The students are eventually stopped by the police and the riots stop.
This is the point in the film where the story of Yukie and the two men with whom she is choosing between starts to come to the forefront.
Itokawa, driven by his family duty, sheds his activist ways and pursues his education again while Noge, the stronger-willed of the two is arrested for his work.
In 1938 Yukie is 25 and still living at home, but she has become restless. Yukie's father has begun to give free legal advice. When Itokawa brings a newly freed Noge back to visit Yukie, old feelings are again brought up in her.
After they leave Yukie resolves to move to Tokyo. This is where the film jumps another few years up to 1941. Yukie has begun working in Tokyo when she happens to run into Itokawa who tells her Noge is now working and living in Tokyo as an activist against the government.
Yukie is reluctant to see Noge but he eventually finds her sulking in front of his workplace. After a discussion of the dangers of Noge's work they decide to wed.
Noge is eventually ambushed by police and eventually dies in his cell before his trial can take place.
A distraught Yukie decides it is her duty to go to Noge's parents. His parents have been leading a life in solitude, going out in the night to do their work for fear they will be chastized over what their son has done.
Yukie begins to work in the fields with Noge's mother where they eventually bond. After the war Yukie chooses to remain in the village with Noge's parents, seeing herself as an activist within the community.
Yukie's father is reinstated at the university as well, and makes a call to the students to remember what Noge has done.
Even with the problems that the picture suffered during production, the film still conveys a powerful message.
Visually the film does not stand out among Kurosawa's work, but there are glipses of shots and style that Kurosawa would use in later pictures.
One example is during the first act when the students are rioted. The audience is presented with a montage of students taking to the streets mixed with shots of newspaper headlines that Kurosawa would later employ in his 1960 film The Bad Sleep Well.
Kurosawa also uses some not so subtle symbolism in No Regrets as well. While Yukie is learning flower arrangement in Tokyo she suddenly plugs all of the flowers from her bowl and begins to tear off three pedals representing herself, Itokawa and Noge. She proceeds to throw these pedals into the bowl, saying that the previous arrangement wasn't a true showing of her expression.
Also, when Yukie is pleading with Noge's parents to stay with them and work, a high angle shot of Yukie's hands is superimposed with a similarly angled shot of two farming tools with finger-like claws.
Another example of this superimposition technique that began with the French Impressionist film movement occurs when Yukie is interrogated and subsequently imprisoned. While she is sitting in her cell, a clock pendulum is superimposed sweeping accross the frame, intensyfying the time going by.
One more sequence shows Yukie's emotions represented through this technique. When she is conflicted about whather or not to see Noge when Itokawa brings him to visit she is shown either gripping a door handle or pressing herself against a door.
The use of this technique may have come out of Kurosawa's love of silent films. In the silents, it was almost always only the visuals that could be used to convey emotions. Kurosawa would later explore his love of silent film in Rashomon.
Another important technique in conveying emotion is music. Music would become much more important to Kurosawa a few films after No Regrets. In No Regrets the music works as film music does in most other films, merely to add an emotional note to a film or to punctuate a scene.
This is true for the non-diegetic (soundtrack) but not always for the diegetic (music played in the film world). For example, when Yukie plays the piano, she plays what she feels. The first time she plays she is expressing her anger over the situation with the students and her father. The second time she plays a sad song that turns angry, showing her confliction. Finally, in one of the last scenes, she looks down at her hands she comments on how they are no longer fit for the piano, they are merely workers hands now.
Transformation is another main theme of the film. With the passage of time, Yukie and others begin to change.
"People change a lot in five years," Itokawa says before telling Yukie she is becoming more ladylike. Yukie does go through numerous physical and emotional transformations throughout the film.
Yukie certainly does what Noge told her she needed to do in the beginning of the film, which is to grow up.
When they finally do marry and begin to live in a home of their own, Kurosawa shows several shots of flowers, signaling a re-birth in their lives.
Kurosawa is quick to point out that not all is well in their lives, as he presents several scenes of Yukie breaking down while sewing a kimono for Noge and watching a funny movie in a theater.
The American censors must have loved this film. Its themes of winning freedom of speech and expression must have certainly resonated with their goals for the newly occupied country.
While many of the characters' personas are not set in stone throughout the movie, the wartime Japanese government and police force are portrayed as the lowest of the low.
The latter is represented by Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura as the police chief who takes pleasure in delivering what he calls "good news" about the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Although the film moves from the social to the more Kurosawa-like humanistic side by focusing on Yukie, the message of freedom from opression is still clear in the end.
This is opitimized in the titles before the final scenes that say, "The war is lost but freedom is restored."
There is another message that is more important for Kurosawa in this picture, however. That one is contained within the title. Several times in the movie Yukie and Noge discuss how they have no regrets. Noge even has a saying, "No regrets in my life."
Throughout the film Yukie continues to forge on, never looking back. She too has no regrets. When Itokawa comes to visit Yukie at Noge's parents' home he tells Yukie that Noge went down the wrong path, a claim that angers Yukie who promptly defends Noge and sends Itokawa away.
In the end Yukie takes on a tremendous sense of duty. A duty not only to her dead husband, but to his family and their community. Even though she has done her duty by staying with his family, she resigns to remain with them.
In one of the final shots Yukie stands at the edge of the water surrounding the mountain that she visited at the beginning of the film. She stands solemly, looking out over the water, before boarding a truck back to the village.
She sends the message that through perseverance and duty you can overcome hardships and obtain freedom. But in the end, with Yukie bonded to the village and family that she has sworn to serve, is she really free?
Kurosawa never says more than that the last 20 minutes of the film were what was re-written, but perhaps this was the contradiction he was seeking to avoid.