Ranking: #65/111

Director: Akira Kurosawa (Japan)

Genre: Political Drama  

No Regrets for our Youth is a profound political drama based on a real incident at Kyoto University in 1933 when a law professor was suspended and later fired by the Education Minister after a protest movement broke out at the university. The students were demonstrating against the increasingly militaristic government of Imperial Japan and the threat it posed to freedom of thought.

In Kurosawa’s hands, this historical incident is transformed into a timeless political parable about the real, brutal, costs of opposing a fascist society in the name of freedom.

The film opens in Spring time with a group of young friends enjoying an outing together in Nature. “The earth smells so wonderful!” one of them exclaims joyously.  But their peace is short-lived as they hear some gunfire in the valley. They know fascism is on the rise in their country and that they face a troubled future. Two of the male students are attracted to the daughter of law Professor Yagihara, Yukie, but they have different characters and political viewpoints. Noge is a fiery, left-wing radical and budding activist, while Itokawa is a moderate, with a submissive personality. The strong-minded daughter later chooses Noge. This proves to be a fateful decision because he is later imprisoned and dies in jail, a martyr for his beliefs. Yet the motto of the young loves remains “no regrets in life”. They display a commendably positive approach to what turns out to be a difficult life.     Itokawa, by contrast, compromises and passively accepts the rise of fascism.

When Yagihara is expelled from the university, one of the last cradles of freedom in the society, students riot in protest. Japan leaves the League of Nations. But Yukie’s father is a liberal, not a radical leftist.

It is Yukie who keeps the spirit of Noge alive after his death, as she goes to live with Noge’s parents, who are peasant farmers, to try to win back their trust in their son. They could never understand why their son had neglected them so much, giving up everything for his political beliefs. While living with them, Yukie helps in the paddy fields. However, the family receives abuse from villagers who believe Noge was a traitor to Japan. Even though he was fighting for social justice in Japan, he was still perceived as being a spy against his own country. So his parents and her are treated as a family of spies. Their paddy fields are then destroyed in a mean-spirited attack. Yet Yukie and Noge’s mother show great spirit and refuse to give up, planting a new crop in defiance of the prejudiced villagers.  When Itokawa coms to visit them and sees what work Yukie has done, he confesses, “Your sheer life-force makes me feel ashamed.”

This is a slow-paced, but moving, intellectual film that speaks to the need to hold onto integrity of beliefs even when a government is oppressive. At the same time, the film admonishes us that it’s important to weigh up the real cost and sacrifice of such a political commitment. In their doomed love affair, both Yukie and Noge pay a huge price for their political standpoints. It’s a thematically rich and, in the end, dramatic, narrative that lives long in the memory.

In his autobiography, Kurosawa said of No Regrets for Our Youth: “I felt peculiarly deep emotions about this film, the first to be made in the post-war atmosphere of freedom…For me it was as if my heart could dance, as if I had grown wings and could fly among the clouds”” (Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography, p. 151).

Finally, I think the comment about Kurosawa’s film art made by The Oxford History of World Cinema applies to this early masterpiece by the Japanese filmmaker: “The dynamism of Kurosawa’s method of story-telling through images has always gone hand in hand with a humanistic treatment of his subjects.” (The Oxford History of World Cinema, p. 716)