Wednesday, May 25, 2011

No Regrets for Our Youth/ わが青春に悔なし

Kurosawa Akira/ 黒澤明 is one of the all time greats of film direction. There is nothing new about this statement and more people are likely to agree than not (I mean among those people who still care to see his movies in today's world!). The first of his films that I saw was Rashomon. I did not quite understand the story then, although I was mesmerized by his camera work. I had just started learning the Japanese language and saw this movie at a film festival held in New Delhi. Although there were English subtitles, the plot was quite complicated and I was too engrossed in the sheer visual effects of the black and white screen than the story.

The next film I saw was Mada da yo/ まだあだよ. At that point of time, my understanding of the Japanese language was better, a few years having passed by. The experience was too good to describe in words and I have seen this movie several times after that.

I also liked the detective story High and Low/ 天国と地獄, a very catchy story that keeps you rooted to your seat till the end.

Ran/ 乱 and Seven Samurais/ 七人の侍 have wonderful story lines and are excellent examples of fascinating filmography. So is The Quiet Duel/ 静かなる決闘, although the ending is very sad. The Quiet Duel is of course a human drama about the life of a doctor struggling between his convictions and love and social stigma for something he had not committed. My favorite is 夢/ DREAMS, a film that probably not many except Kurosawa buffs would have heard of. Inspired by Natsume Soseki, DREAMS is a collection of several short stories and is very much like watching a slideshow of a string of pictures taken at different locations. It is probably a kaleidoscope of the picturesque mind of the great Japanese film director.

Since then I have tried seeing Kurosawa's lesser known works, the most recent being 一番美しく/ The Most Beautiful (starring Yōko Yaguchi, who would later become Kurosawa's beloved wife despite all the reported arguments they had), and No Regrets for Our Youth/ わが青春に悔なし. I shall talk about the latter here.

Made in 1946, starring the beautiful Hara Setsuko, it is based on the pre-WW2 Takigawa incident of 1932~'33. The story revolves around the three main characters, namely Yukie (played by Hara Setsuko) and two of her father's students Itokawa and Noge, both of whom are trying to court her. Itokawa is a sensible guy, who very much seems to have his head on his shoulders, and has prospects of leading a quiet, pleasantly successful life, while Noge is a radical.

Yukie's father, Professor Yagihara, is removed from his post at Kyoto Imperial University because of his views against fascism. His views were considered too leftist in a Japan where militaristic jingoism was growing.

Yukie, Itokawa and Noge spend much of their time together. The film shows scenes of the three of them and other students climbing through the forest in the mountains. While crossing a mountain stream, Itokawa and Noge have just crossed a stream while Yukie stands transfixed on a rock in the middle of the stream as both Itokawa and Noge extend their hands to help her. Yukie hesitates, takes neither hand and keeps standing. Noge seizes his chance as he marches up to her, takes her in his arms and crosses the stream. Yukie is eventually drawn towards Noge. She is a carefree girl who plays the piano wonderfully well and wants to live a life without regrets.

Time for some food for thought at this juncture. Probably women of today would choose the calm Itokawa over Noge. Times have changed and such firebrand characters are no longer admired and are an oddity that stands out to be hit, someone to be apprehensive and fearful about.

Noge disappears for a while as he is arrested and spends some time in jail. He comes out a much changed man and seems reformed to match the prevailing times. He has got a job in the army. Yukie goes away from the dinner table but comes back to see Noge off on learning that he would be leaving for China.

Crestfallen, Yukie decides to leave her parents home and fend for herself. Her father, Professor Yagihara, tries his best to convince her that the world outside is not as benevolent as the home she has grown up in protected from the outside. She is blissfully unaware of the volatile state of Japanese society at that time. But Yukie is determined to leave her cocoon and after sometime her father relents.

She spends three years working in Tokyo, changing her job several times. As she describes to Noge later, all the jobs she did had been only to earn a living for survival and somehow get by. She wanted to be involved in something greater than that and appealed to Noge to share his secrets with her and allow her into the life that he had been treading so long. In fact it was Itokawa (now a married man leading a peaceful life) who tells Yukie that Noge is in Tokyo when they accidentally bump into each other in the street. Although Yukie summons the courage to go and meet Noge, she is hesitant and fearful of the encounter. Eventually they meet each other when Noge notices her outside the office. They spend time together and finally get married.

Yukie realizes that her husband is involved in illegal activities and that he refuses to tell her about them. He is arrested, the police raid their house and takes Yukie for interrogation. She has a harrowing time but profers no information. Yukie stares blankly in prison and remembers the scene of herself, Noge and Itokawa running in the woods on the mountains in Kyoto. She is freed by Itokawa's good offices. Her parents board the train and reach Tokyo. Although the professor intends to represent his son-in-law in court, Itokawa sadly informs that Noge is already dead. He died the night before their conversation.

Yukie's spirit crumbles as she is crushed by the weight of her circumstances. Noge had once showed her a picture of his parents that he carefully kept in his shirt pocket. It happenned quite by accident when they had hugged and Yukie had asked what was in his pocket. When he had been hesitant, she asked whether it was some secret that he did not want to share. He had said no it wasn't and had shown her the photograph of his father and mother. For some reason he had not kept in touch with them and perhaps as time passed, a crust had developed on old memories keeping them buried and making him uneasy to try and get back to them.

Seeing his heartbroken daughter, the Professor reminds her of the words when she had left home for Tokyo. 「自由の裏には苦しい犠牲と責任がある」。In English, this will translate into something like, "Behind (true) freedom lies great sacrifice and weighty resposibility." (translation mine). Yukie takes her husband's ashes to his parents and tells them that she is his wife. She is spurned initially as Noge's parents think the elegant and rich family girl Yukie's behavior is only mockery in the face of the reality that their son was convicted of being a spy. But she stays on and works with them on the rice fields. Pained though she is to find her in-laws harrassed by other villagers because of their son, she tries to win them over with her sincerity. She works hard even when she has fever.

Noge's mother laments her fate at having had such a bad son. She even buries Noge's ashes (brought by Yukie) at night when all her neighbors are asleep. In contrast, Yukie digs the earth whispering, "I am Noge's wife! I am Noge's wife!"

Yukie starts to go out and work in the fields even in broad daylight (something her mother-in-law had been avoiding). The children of the village run after her shouting, "Spy! Spy!" A startling reminder about how cruel our society, including children, can be to people they have forcibly chosen to turn out as outcasts. This scene reminded me of the novel, "Lord of the Flies"/ 「蠅の王」 by William Golding.

The neighbors destroy their rice fields the very night they finish planting all of them. Yukie shares the sorrow inflicted on her in-laws and finally they begin to understand her. They accept her as their daughter-in-law and she helps them see their son in a new light that he was indeed a good man. After the war ended, Professor Yagihara is reinstated and Noge is honored for his anti-war activities, finally redeeming him in the eyes of his parents. Yukie goes back to visit her parents in Takigawa (Kyoto). Yukie's mother asks her to stay on as she has achieved what she had aimed for and Noge's parents were no longer ashamed of him. But Yukie is now more adept at planting rice than playing the piano. She goes back to work on her in-laws farm where she feels more at ease.

The end is idealistic and Yukie plays the perfect woman supporting her husband and even redeeming him in the eyes of his parents. She understands how son and parents had drifted further and further apart due to his outrageously bold life, and as they drifted further, his sense of insecurity had grown. Finally he had found solace in her through her companionship and understanding nature. Noge used to tell Yukie that he was doing work that could only be appreciated in the distant future. His dream was indeed fulfilled.

Oguma Eiji Sensei commented on Seven Samurai's that such faces of Japanese cannot be found in today's world. Any remake of Kurosawa's 'No Regrets for Our Youth' could at best be a caricature of the life like peasants portrayed in the movie.

This film reminds me of some of Satyajit Ray's materpieces based on the struggles of ordinary people living in the heat, dust and grinding poverty of Bengal under an oppressive political regime. I could finally understand why Ray admired his work so much, although the two Asian greats were born in such different societies under very dissimilar circumstances, .

Japan at that time was so much like the India I grew up in. That is why I feel so connected to Ozu films, even though I am a foreigner in this land, and was born decades after such films were made.

A great movie that holds lessons for children of today, including those of contemporary Japan. Many people talk so glibly about freedom and justice and equality these days, hardly understanding the meaning of such words. Are such people, born in affluence without a care about what happens in this world, really free? Aren't they bound to their branded products, petty values et al, just pretending to be free birds while strutting in a cage? Maybe we do need to comtemplate more deeply upon, "Behind (true) freedom lies great sacrifice and weighty resposibility." Amen.

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