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By Hilton Als
NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH: RECOVERY EFFORT
As Japan was coming out of World War II, Akira Kurosawa was coming into his own as a filmmaker. And this was hardly a coincidence: though he had made a name for himself as a promising popular craftsman at Toho Studios during the war, Kurosawa later said he didn’t feel he could express himself as an artist until the censorship restrictions of that era had been lifted and he could take the new Japan as his subject. Devastated by the human and material losses of the war and facing widespread homelessness and economic collapse, the now Allied-occupied Japan became the canvas on which this trained painter would make his mark as a filmmaker.
For Kurosawa, social commitment and visual artistry would always go hand in hand, although this particular phase of his career, from right after the war until the mid-fifties, would see him tackling more directly the pressing issues of contemporary Japanese life than ever again. In between 1946’s No Regrets for Our Youth and 1955’s I Live in Fear, Kurosawa would become an international sensation, all the while creating a body of work that dealt, either straight-forwardly or through metaphor, with the struggles of his fellow citizens.
All of Kurosawa’s wartime films were affected by censorship, no matter the content—from personal projects like his masterful debut, Sanshiro Sugata (1943), a classically heroic master-pupil narrative, to assignments such as the overt propaganda film The Most Beautiful (1944), about women helping the war effort. Postwar American occupying forces had their own review board, of course, but its far-less-restrictive guidelines, encouraging the glorification of democracy and freedom, were much more suited to Kurosawa’s political ideas. His first postwar project for Toho was indeed a great fit in this regard: a narrative of national collapse and recovery, No Regrets for Our Youth is a sweeping tale of antinationalist revolt whose central quote, “there is sacrifice in the struggle for freedom,” becomes its guiding principle.
Opening idyllically, with a joyous band of college students whistling along a riverbank as they climb a hill that overlooks Kyoto University, the “garden of freedom,” No Regrets for Our Youth stands out among Kurosawa’s films of the period in beginning before the devastations of war—in the peace and prosperity of early 1930s Japan. And alone in Kurosawa’s body of work, this film aligns itself with the point of view of a female protagonist: Yukie, played by the brilliantly expressive Setsuko Hara. Moving from bourgeois complacency to social activism, Yukie—the daughter of a conservative university professor and eventual wife of one of his students, an anti-imperial intellectual from a peasant family—is the film’s emotional anchor, guiding us through the political and cultural turmoil of Japan from 1933 to 1945.
No Regrets for Our Youth was shot during a series of workers’ strikes at Toho, at a time when the left was resurgent in Japan. And the film’s glorification of radical activism and peasant workers (with low-angle shots evocative of the socialist realism of Alexander Dovzhenko) reflects both Kurosawa’s political spirit and Japan’s newfound social freedom—a multifaceted concept that Kurosawa would continue to examine in the decade to come.
ONE WONDERFUL SUNDAY: INFLATION
The elegant melodrama of No Regrets for Our Youth was a success with both audiences and critics, yet Akira Kurosawa decided to try a different approach for his next postwar project. A variation on the popular shomin-geki, or “common-man film,” without the genre’s usual focus on family home life, One Wonderful Sunday (1947) feels more in tune with the Italian neorealist films of the day, with their mix of social realism and hard-won sentiment. Kurosawa was, in fact, a fan of Vittorio De Sica’s, later stating that he would have preferred to win Venice’s Golden Lion in 1951 not for Rashomon but for something “reflecting more of present-day Japan, such a film as Bicycle Thieves.”
Alternately a modest, despairing look at the financial uncertainty of a generation adrift and a whimsical, Capraesque celebration of the power of the imagination, One Wonderful Sunday follows war veteran Yuzo (Isao Numazaki) and Masako (Chieko Nakakita), a middle-class couple who wish to marry, as they spend the titular day of rest together in the city, worriedly musing about their future, searching for an affordable room to rent, and trying to find ways to stretch their meager thirty-five yen into a day of entertainment. Wandering through an urban landscape dotted with war orphans, abandoned factories, and bars brimming with the soused and disillusioned, Yuzo and Masako nevertheless maintain a mostly positive attitude, even finding humor in the obscenely inflated prices at a small diner. But despite a generally cheery tone, there are moments of intense despair as well, as when, midway through the film, Yuzo is nearly paralyzed with sadness while sitting in Masako’s tiny, leaky apartment during a rainstorm—one of the most melancholy passages of Kurosawa’s career.
Yet Kurosawa saves Yuzo and Masako from this forlornness in the film’s daring climax, an impressive but ultimately failed experiment in audience participation. After the couple miss out on cheap tickets to hear a live performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, Masako tries to lift Yuzo’s spirits by summoning the illusion of a live orchestra before him in a vacated amphitheater. In a moment reminiscent of J. M. Barrie’s imploring of Peter Pan readers to clap their hands to save Tinker Bell, Masako turns to the camera with moist, earnest eyes, breaking the fourth wall to ask the audience to applaud—so that Yuzo, and they, can hear the music. “What I wanted to do with this scene,” Kurosawa explained in his autobiography, “was transform the audience into actual participants in the plot.” Yet audiences in Japan sat motionless during Masako’s entreaties, creating an awkward empty space where Kurosawa intended engagement.
Despite Japanese audiences’ unwillingness to help move the film’s plot along (though Kurosawa was later happy to remark that in Paris they applauded with enthusiasm), Schubert’s powerful music does emanate from the soundtrack, and Kurosawa responds with some of his most sensational filmmaking to date—impressive crane shots and dramatic lighting create a visual symphony to match Schubert’s aural one. It’s a memorably hopeful ending to an otherwise sober work and a hint of Kurosawa’s grand cinematic ambitions.
SCANDAL: PUBLIC TRUST
In the years following One Wonderful Sunday, Akira Kurosawa made a series of ambitious films that dramatically raised his profile as a director, even if he was not yet a household name. Though he considered his 1948 yakuza drama Drunken Angel to be his artistic breakthrough, Kurosawa, and Japanese film in general, had yet to break through to international audiences. Kurosawa continued to grapple with the recovery of his war-ravaged country, often funneling his commentary through genre pieces: Drunken Angel’s gangster plot was the rationale for a look at Japan’s rampant black marketeering; The Quiet Duel (1949) was a medical melodrama about a wartime surgeon who catches syphilis from a patient; the detective story Stray Dog (1949) allowed him to survey the poverty, criminality, and unemployment of postwar Tokyo.
In addition to thinly veiled social commentary about Japan’s ongoing reconstruction efforts, these films had something else in common as well: Toshiro Mifune. After first noticing the actor at an open audition for Toho Studios, and being impressed by his electrifying, animalistic bravado in Senkichi Taniguchi’s To the End of the Silver Mountains (1947), which Kurosawa wrote, he cast the relative unknown in Drunken Angel’s lead role. Kurosawa was in awe of the actor’s ultraphysical performance style, so unlike that of his Japanese contemporaries. “The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression,” Kurosawa later said. “Mifune needed only three feet.” By the time Kurosawa was preparing his dissection of postwar media corruption, Scandal (1950), the two were already comfortable collaborators, and despite the film’s scathing look at an ethically challenged culture, it offered Mifune his most glamorous leading role yet.
Though Kurosawa flourished as an artist amid the new freedoms of postwar Japan, he understood that those freedoms could be abused as well. Inspired by a sensational celebrity gossip column, Scandal, made for Shochiku studios rather than the director’s home base of Toho, takes as its subject this slanderous “verbal gangsterism,” as Kurosawa called it, although in its making the film inadvertently became something more. Its main couple, painter Ichiro (Mifune) and singer Miyako (Yoshiko Yamaguchi), wrongly accused by the tabloid Amour of an illicit liaison, ultimately take a narrative backseat to the crooked attorney Hiruta (Takashi Shimura), hired by Ichiro to sue for libel but also being paid off by the editor of Amour. The tremulous Shimura, already a Kurosawa standby, steals the film from even the debonair, never-handsomer Mifune; though he embodies Hiruta as a lowly, pathetic figure, Shimura makes the lawyer into a sympathetic underdog of sorts, a victim of a society plunged into moral degeneration. Thus Hiruta, with his tubercular daughter and his sure but steady path to redemption, stands in for his country’s reformation.
In a sense, Scandal, with its focus on a newly litigious and celebrity-obsessed culture, was Kurosawa’s most “Western” film yet. Though essentially a courtroom potboiler, and stylistically and structurally more restrained than Kurosawa’s other films, Scandal further investigates Japan’s, and Kurosawa’s, love-hate relationship with America and modernization.
THE IDIOT: TEST SITE
Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, made for the Daiei Motion Picture Company, hit the 1951 Venice Film Festival with hurricane force, finally bringing Kurosawa onto the international film stage. With its innovative elliptical storytelling, sophisticated ambiguity, and tribute to silent Japanese cinema, Rashomon heralded the director’s move into ever more experimental territory in the early 1950s. Though Rashomon is set in medieval Japan, its devastating vision of a morally dubious world can be seen as reflecting contemporary society—and the film’s enthusiastic reception across the globe (including an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film) attested to the Western world’s increasing interest in modern Japanese culture.
Even before Rashomon had accrued this astonishing praise, Kurosawa was working with Shochiku studios on his next project: an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic novel The Idiot, one of the director’s favorite books, by a key artistic and philosophical influence in his career. Although Kurosawa decided to follow the events of the novel fairly closely, he changed its setting from nineteenth-century Russia to Japan directly after World War II. Dostoyevsky’s ethereal, epileptic, Christlike protagonist Prince Myshkin, coming back to Saint Petersburg after being treated at a clinic in Switzerland, becomes Kurosawa’s Kameda (Masayuki Mori), returning home from the war to the frigid northern town of Hokkaido, after release from a prisoner-of-war camp. Kameda’s almost otherworldly honesty and pureness become liabilities when he’s reintegrated into society, leading to myriad conflicts in his friendship with the troubled Denkichi (Toshiro Mifune), fascination with the bewitching Taeko (a stunningly fatale Setsuko Hara), and romance with girl next door Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga).
Following the circular structure of Rashomon, The Idiot (1951) seems drastically linear, while at the same time fragmented, which undoubtedly has a lot to do with the fact that Shochiku chopped Kurosawa’s original four-and-a-half-hour cut down to 166 minutes (the only extant version). Likely because of this, the film at times feels half-realized, and there’s also the sense that the original nineteenth-century Russian narrative is awkwardly shoehorned into a modern Japanese framework.
Nevertheless, the film shows an artist at the peak of his powers. Kurosawa’s adeptness at complex, lengthy set pieces and his penchant for elegant visual patterning (dazzling compositions abound, from within the dark caverns of Denkichi’s snowbound lair to the majestic archways providing canopy for Kameda and Ayako’s hushed meetings) are apparent from first frame to last. And he rigorously maintains an air of dreamlike fragility throughout, so different from his usually more direct approach. Today the noted failure of The Idiot seems a necessary—and entertaining—artistic catharsis on the road to even more daring cinematic experimentations. The film points toward Kurosawa’s eventual move away from the realities of postwar Japan and to the realm of myth.
I LIVE IN FEAR: THE NUCLEAR FAMILY
Though he had examined at length the socioeconomic, cultural, and moral changes in Japan in the years following World War II, Akira Kurosawa had yet to set his sights on the darkest cloud hanging over the nation: the specter of the atomic bombs the United States had dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The last film of the 1950s in which he examined the daily lives of postwar Japanese citizens, I Live in Fear (also known as Record of a Living Being) is his most direct contemplation of the physical and emotional fallout of the conflict. Though it was made after the Allied occupation ended in 1952, and following the staggering success of his sixteenth-century adventure Seven Samurai (1954), I Live in Fear’s social-realist address situates it firmly among the filmmaker’s ruminative contemporary postwar dramas.
The devastation here is more psychological than physical, as Kurosawa focuses not on a victim of nuclear warfare but on an elderly businessman, Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune), nearly paralyzed by fear of the bomb. Inspired by the mass panic that occurred in Japan in 1954 after two Japanese fishermen were contaminated by radioactive ash from American hydrogen-bomb testing in Bikini Atoll and then sold their fish in the marketplace, I Live in Fear is grounded in contemporary anxieties. Tokyo, shot even from the opening credits as a teeming metropolis on the precipice of doom, is the locus of this terror; Nakajima wishes to retreat from such an easy target and escape, along with all of his dependents (including children from his wife and three mistresses), to a farm in Brazil.
The central drama of the film, however, derives less from the possibility of another nuclear attack than from the devastation Nakajima’s paranoia wreaks on his family, who try to have him declared insane. Mifune, with his age makeup, contorted face, and paunchy, crooked gait, makes a splendidly stubborn old patriarch, and though he reigns over his family with unforgiving, iron resolve, he remains the film’s most completely drawn, sympathetic figure. Still, Kurosawa refuses to takes sides on the question of who, if anyone, has the sanest response to the threat of nuclear annihilation. Despite the economic miracle of the mid-fifties in Japan, Kurosawa paints a society connected through unease, its future an ominous question mark.
Though Kurosawa’s portraits of postwar Japanese society defined his breakthrough years, he would come to be most well-known for his mythic spectacles, such as Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Kagemusha, and Ran, all set in the distant past. Yet even these are informed by the traumas, adjustments, and anxieties of the postwar period that was so formative for him.
Michael Koresky is staff writer at the Criterion Collection.