Sometimes getting beaten in a war can be good for a country’s soul. I am convinced that losing in Vietnam was one of the best things that ever happened to the United States of America. The sense of humility that came out of getting stomped by a third world country prevented us from going fascist until after 9/11. It was also good for American cinema. Until Hollywood returned to making jingoistic crap like Forrest Gump and Saving Private Ryan in the 1990s, it made a few sincere, if ultimately flawed attempts to come to terms with the Tet offensive, the Battle of Khe Sanh, and the cadaver connection.
It’s just too bad Hollywood in the 1970s and 1980s never had a genius on the level of Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa’s early masterpiece No Regrets for Our Youth is the film that Francis Ford Coppola and Oliver Stone probably wanted to make, but never quite had the audacity to pitch to United Artists. What makes Not Regrets for Our Youth such a magnificent act of artistic integrity is how Kurosawa defied, not only Japan’s fascists and militarists, but also the American occupation. While it’s true that the Cold War would not quite begin in earnest until 1948, it was also clear that the alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union was already at the breaking point. For a director still only in his mid-30s to make a film that transformed a Soviet spy, basically the Japanese Alger Hiss, into a romantic hero was to risk not only his career, but quite possibly his life.
First the historical background.
In 1931, the Japanese staged a “false flag” incident at a railway line owned by Japan’s South Manchuria Railway near Mukden. It was no 9/11, but it was an “inside job,” a small-scale bombing that caused no significant damage, but served as a pretext for an invasion of northern China. Much like 9/11 enabled George W. Bush to ram the Patriot Act through Congress, the “Manchurian Incident” also allowed the Japanese ruling class to mount a fascist crackdown at home. During the “Kyoto Incident” for example, a liberal law professor named Takigawa Yukitoki was suspended from his post for teaching that the judiciary had to consider the sociological roots of social deviancy before passing sentence. He was fired outright after a student and faculty strike called for him to be reinstated.
In the late 1930s, a communist journalist named Hotsumi Ozaki managed to work his way into the highest levels of the Japanese government. He began to pass classified information to the Soviet spy Richard Sorge, whom he had known since the left-wing American writer Agnes Smedley introduced the two men back in 1930. It’s really difficult to overestimate just how much the world owes to Hotsumi Ozaki, who most Americans have never heard of, but who quite possibly did more to defeat Hitler than an entire army group of American and British soldiers. Even though he, and Sorge, were executed by the Japanese government in 1944, they died knowing they had helped Stalin to beat Hitler at the Battle of Moscow.
Ozaki learned that Japan wanted to avoid a war with the Soviet Union, and let Sorge know of it. This information proved to be of uttermost importance for the whole history of the Second World War: after Sorge relayed it to Soviet command, Moscow transferred 18 divisions, 1,700 tanks, and over 1,500 aircraft from Siberia and the Far East to the Western Front against the Nazi Germany during the most dangerous months of the Battle for Moscow, one of the turning points of the whole war.
The screenplay for No Regrets for Our Youth seamlessly weaves the story of Hotsumi Ozaki into the earlier story of Professor Takigawa Yukitoki and the Kyoto Incident. It opens with Yukie Yagihara — the daughter of a university professor played by Setsuko Hara — on a picnic with a group young men. Anybody who knows Hara from Late Spring or Tokyo story will be surprised by her character, who’s a privileged flirt, closer to Olivia Dandridge in John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon than she is to Noriko Somiya or Noriko Hirayama. During the picnic, an idyllic outing which is harshly interrupted by the sound of gunfire in the distance, we also meet two of Yukie’s suitors, Itokawa, a get along by going along careerist played by Akitake Kôno, and Ryukichi Noge, a fiery young leftist played by Susumu Fujita. After Yukie’s father, a liberal academic and a fictionalized version of Professor Takigawa Yukitoki, is suspended from his post for speaking out against the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, Noge organizes a strike by the faculty and students. It not only fails — Yukie’s father is fired — Noge is arrested and sentenced to four years in prison.
Meanwhile Itokawa — No Regrets for Our Youth unfolds over a timespan of 12 years — is working his way up through the judiciary of the Japanese government. Itokawa isn’t a bad guy, and certainly doesn’t come off like a fascist, but Yukie despises him. Once, after Noge “called her out” for being a shallow liberal, and Itokawa had taken her side, she turned to Itokawa and said “all he did was tell the truth, something you’re incapable of doing.” Yukie’s father, no longer able to teach law, finds a second career doing pro-bono work for the poor. Yukie, in turn, moves from Kyoto to Tokyo, where she takes a series of low-status jobs, secretary, flower arranger, clerk at a shipping company, all the while pining away for Noge. They meet again after Itokawa, now a “public prosecutor,” and convinced that Noge has mended his ways and disavowed his leftist politics, arranges for an early parole, his smug satisfaction after telling Yukie hinting that he’s more concerned with getting out of the “friend zone,” or at least with proving that Noge isn’t the hero everybody thought he was, than he is in keeping an eventual communist spy in prison.
Initially disappointed over the idea that Noge has now becoming a conformist and careerist bootlicker like Itokawa, Yukie soon learns that the truth is very different. Noge is in fact, running a research institute that serves as a cover for his work as a Soviet agent. Neither the Soviet Union nor communism are ever mentioned in No Regrets for Our Youth, but it’s not really necessary since Noge’s resemblance to Hotsumi Ozaki would have been perfectly clear to any Japanese viewer in 1946. Suddenly Yukie realizes that Noge had been right all along, that her father, well-intentioned liberal though he was, had never been willing to go far enough, to call for a revolution against the fascist government. After she and Noge are married, they begin an idyllic, and all too brief, romance. Even though he refuses to tell her anything about his work, it’s clear he’s involved not only in passing information about the Japanese occupation of Manchuria to the Soviet Union, but in organizing a communist resistance movement against the fascist government. When Yukie suggests going into hiding, he fatalistically tells her that the secret police know exactly who he is is and can arrest him anytime they want. Noge, like any good anti-fascist, resists, not because he thinks he can win, but because it’s the right thing to do.
“In tens years the truth will come out,” he tells her, “and the Japanese people will thank us for what we’ve done.”
Noge, true to his prediction, is arrested by the secret police, and murdered in prison, but he has already inspired one convert, Yukie’s father, no longer a wishy washy liberal, and determined to defend his radical son in law in court before he learns of his death. It’s at this point that Yukie comes into her own, becoming, as Dennis Grunes points out, Kurosawa’s first great Samurai. Even at 26, Setsuko Hara is already the great actress she would be for the next two decades. Anybody who thinks little Daisy Ridley from The Force Awakens is a strong female hero needs to see No Regrets for Our Youth. The the last 30 minutes make you wish the Star Wars franchise had ripped off this film instead of Kurosawa’s later The Hidden Fortress.
Yukie, determined to honor the memory of her husband, does so in the only appropriate way you can honor a communist hero. She joins the class struggle, disavowing her bourgeois privilege, and moving in with her dead husband’s mother and father, both working-class farmers who have been ostracized by their community as the parents of a spy. Suddenly Kurosawa changes the way he lights Hara to reflect her own personal transformation. In the first half of the film, while she was still Noge’s helpmate, she was portrayed as a wispy heroine from a romantic novel, the light and shadow reflecting the longing she felt inside. Abruptly, she becomes a militant communist heroine, the camera now filming her from below, the aesthetics suggesting Soviet socialist realism instead of bourgeois domestic drama. Together, with Noge’s mother, and in the face of the town’s hostility, she helps get the rice crop planted, almost dying of exhaustion in the process. After local fascist thugs destroy their rice paddies, littering the field with threats and right-wing propaganda, the two women start all over again, like Sisyphus pushing the rock back up the hill after it rolls down, and eventually bringing Noge’s father, who has been a hollow shell of a man ever since his son’s death, back to life.
“The war was lost but freedom was restored,” a placard says at the end of the film, probably reflecting a more optimistic view of the American occupation than history would justify, but clearly expressing Kurosawa’s relief that the fascist government had been taken down. No Regrets for Our Youth ends with Yukie’s father back in his teaching post, now thoroughly radicalized, giving a speech to a new generation of law students in memory of his son-in-law, whom he now realizes that, according to the Buddhist tradition, was the teacher who found him when he was ready. Academic freedom has been restored. The fight for socialism will go on.