Tuesday, December 30, 2008

No Regrets For Our Youth

As the 1946 date indicates, this moving drama from Akira Kurosawa was truly a hot-off-the-presses sort of enterprise; the country had barely been liberated from militarist oppression than the young director took full advantage of his newfound freedom to criticize the country's long slide toward fascism.

Spanning the years between 1933 and 1945, it features the beautiful and beguiling Setsuko Hara, best-known for her work with Yasujiro Ozu, as Yukie, a naive, idealistic young woman whose world is shaken to the core when her father, a respected professor, criticizes the government for squelching academic freedom. This leads to a student revolt, which in turn leads to a government crackdown. Yukie finds herself torn between two fellow students, the docile Itokawa (Akitake Kono) and the radical leftist Noge (Haruko Sugimora). As the run-up to the war gets in full swing, Yukie finds love, purpose and danger with Noge, who finds a comfortable research job, which is actually just a cover for his nobly anti-government plans. To put it in Casablanca terms, Yukie plays Ilsa to his Victor, suffers interrogation from the authorities when he's jailed, and ultimately takes on his struggle for the larger cause. The film follows her on a journey from innocence to wisdom; a winsome, piano-playing, head-in-the-clouds coquette who will, eventually, get her hands dirty and become a local hero, a veritable Madonna of the rice paddy. Hara delivers the kind of unrestrained emotional performance that would never quite fit in the generally more somber world of Ozu.

Besides being Kurosawa's only film with a female lead, this may also be his most frankly political (that I've seen, anyway), and it does not carry it's message lightly, as Kurosawa proudly (and quite safely) hoists the middle finger toward the country's deposed leader and his miserable minions. Perhaps it was a movie he had to get out of his system; certainly it's a movie made with a great deal of passion and conviction. Although no one would ever consider it first-rank Kurosawa, it displays touches of a raw, roaring talent in the making.

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