The New Normal of the Female Protagonist and the End of Japan’s Empire: Akira Kurosawa’s No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)

The conclusion of the Second World War allowed Akira Kurosawa to explore his creative ambitions by producing films that not only became cinematic masterpieces, but also held true to his original vision. No Regrets for Our Youth chronicles three major periods: Japan’s annexation of Manchuria in 1931, the empire’s initial momentum, and eventual decline in 1941. During these phases, Japan’s war machine and long reaching propaganda are witnessed through the life of Yukie Yagihara, played by Setsuko Hara. Her leftist academic father and her privileged lifestyle set the tone and motivations for this lesser known political film. The plot is dense, but its beauty is in Kurosawa’s political sentiments. Despite being forced by the state to publish propaganda films such as The Most Beautiful during the war, the relatively young director (age 36 at the time) explored the postwar shock to the follies of imperial ambition. Japan, the champion of modernization in the East, was physically and economically devastated. The people sought for answers, and Kurosawa saw the potential for modernizing social norms when the nation was ripe for reform. Amidst the rebuilding process, Japan experiences major economic and political changes as the nation establishes close ties to the United States with the Korean War looming. Kurosawa believed other fundamental issues were ignored and the ambitious director structured his response to Japan’s woes by being an early spokesperson for breaking the traditional female roles.

Glimpses of Yukie’s boredom with flower arrangement classes while the men contribute to the leftist movement for academic freedom illustrates this obvious discrepancy. There is a natural development in Japan’s declining war effort and Yukie’s increased autonomy and social activism. Yukie becomes a modern depiction of the female lead — one that exudes independence, wit, and redefining conventional thought in the 1940s. As her naiveté is unraveled by being personally victimized by fascism, she becomes synonymous with the anti-imperialism views. Simultaneously, Japan’s fascist regime loosens its grip on the state as the war turns sour. Once she experiences her final break from her bourgeois upbringing and the illusion of expected female roles, she fully assumes her duty to advocating and acting in the best interest of a future Japan. Kurosawa was ahead of his time by creating the standard for empowered, intelligent female protagonists through his political motivations. This film was his only female focused project, yet he creates a work that should have been considered the new normal for female protagonists. No Regrets for Our Youth precedes Rashomon and Seven Samurai in terms of political sentiments and lacks the same global recognition, but it was the most direct and explicit in its goal. Kurosawa’s repressed political leanings and values finally come to fruition during a tumultuous, but progressive time for Japan.

Setting the tone of Japan’s Total War

Japan becomes a fascist state that seized all means of production and ideological freedom in an effort to maximize the war effort. With control over all schools of thought and resources, the right to freedom of education is the contested topic early on in the film. Professors and students at Kyoto University sought for more academic freedom without the constraint of the government manipulation and censorship. The first phase, the controversial Japanese annexation of Manchuria and creation of the puppet state, Manchuko, cause protests and outcry for Japan’s aggressive stance. Protests and rallies for more freedom were hampered by the threat of being characterized as Reds: alleged anti-nationalists and enemies to the homeland. The taboo subject of Communism is explored in the second phase, where the now resigned Professor Yagihara is questioned by the state for offering free legal advice to his community. With Japan siding with Germany and Italy, Total War begins to suffocate society. Conscription and financial contributions to the war effort increase exponentially, leaving the citizens with the bare minimum. The question of fees arises and the military personnel residing in the Yagihara neighbourhood wonder where the Professor’s political leanings rest. Yukie remains an outsider during the political meetings, but this experience of state officials entering her home offers a vignette of the growing tensions outside her sheltered life.

Political Awakening

Kurosawa’s obvious political leanings are gradually developed through Yukie after this first political experience. The opening minutes show Yukie’s entrenchment in the euphoric splendour of her home and friends. Her exclusion from the politically inclined academics equating to her father’s wisdom continue to incite Yukie. In contrast, her mother, a woman of the late post-Meji restoration, happily attends to the expected servitude. With Yukie’s growing discontent, Kurosawa’s vision begins to take hold and traditional gender roles disintegrate.

Along with the generational comparisons in both females, Yukie’s own desires and the standards of her peers are contrasted. Her father is a revered professor and the two students (Ryukichi Noge and Itokawa) courting her hand in marriage are also aspiring professionals. With the question of age (Yukie is mentioned as 27), marriage is brought up frequently as the expected next step awaiting her. As an individual, she has yet to experience life on her own, an education, or any true growing pains. She is placed in a typing class and the flower arrangement class that are meant to substitute for a university education. Here, her connection to the cycle of traditionalism is broken. Rather than accept the status as an observer to political upheavals and hopeful movements for change, she becomes dissatisfied and begins to understand the conflicting politics surrounding Japan and her close ones. The enormity of the political strife begins to dwarf her social and gender status. To understand the very changes around her and throughout the nation, she realizes the limitations set by traditionalism. She is bound by the overbearing male domination of her peers and society. By leaving home to make her own life, Yukie’s break is celebrated for her unique approaches by Kurosawa. Her rationale, and firm stance behind her beliefs are gradually making her an ideological equal to the male characters.

Her first few years in metropolitan Tokyo and living off menial jobs are stark changes from her bourgeois upbringing. The return of Itokawa and his marriage represent the fleeting reality of her comfortable life. Her rekindling relationship with Noge finally ignites her new political awakening. Initially, she assumes a similar role to her mother, by attending to household needs. Keep in mind, as a young individual only discovering the responsibilities of adulthood, she is prone to rely on the examples of her only female role model. She believes this ought to be happiness, but her true purpose is revealed when this reality is exploited. Yukie hesitantly attempts to recreate the comfortable life of Kyoto during her marriage, but she knows she must face the turbulent nature of the times.

Once she is investigated as a possible accomplice to her husband’s apparent crimes against the war effort, this sparks the final paradigm shift in her role. Finally faced with the state’s paranoia, she has a first-hand experience of its exploits. Her husband’s project that attracted the authorities was prompted up as beneficial towards Japan’s future — one without war and freedom from militarization. She emerges as a more politicized, motivated individual. This deepens her departure from the status quo and splendours of the past. She uses her new found motivation to finally embrace her own beliefs and completely detach from the military’s guise over society. No longer the cheerful youth of Kyoto, she travels to the countryside to put her new found political nature into action.

In an effort to persuade her late husband’s parents of his work for the benefit of Japan, she resorts to living with them in a rural community. The irony of this setting is the question of purity. While Yukie leaves the confines of privilege and the urban life affected by political strife, the countryside, lacking the technological innovations, absorbs the war propaganda and illusion of nationalism at an alarming rate. The presence of invasive neighbours terrorizing the family and calling them enemies to the war effort validates the war propaganda’s long reaching effects. The areas experiencing the least benefit from Japan’s expansionism have become the most dedicated supporters of the war.  Amidst the desolation and burdensome harvest, the surrounding community feels a sense of nationalism. This setting finally completes Yukie’s political transformation. She remains in this volatile community despite the balking and initial rejection from her in-laws. Their daily ungratefulness for her help and determination fuels her purpose. Like her reluctant, naïve past, she knows that these people must see beyond the allure and passiveness in accepting nationalistic tendencies and pride. Despite her hard work, the harvest is destroyed, perpetrated by the incessant attacks of the villagers. This causes a breakthrough and the anticipated political awakenings in Yukie’s in-laws. They finally realize the destructive nature of the war and realize their son was not a traitor. The veil of nationalism is lifted and the elderly couple celebrates Ryukichi’s life. The in-laws finally understand the volatile nature of blindly supporting war in the name of national pride.

Despite Yukie’s success in swaying her in-laws and academic freedom returning to Kyoto University, her calling has only begun. She can no longer return to the comfort and traditionalism of the urban life. While Japan remains on the defensive until its unconditional surrender in 1945, the changes to her life have become irreversible. In sharp contrast to her early persona, Yukie has become educated, affected, and indebted to the political reformation against fascism and the traditional female role. Kurosawa’s political message comes full circle, and the film becomes a painful truth to Japan’s situation in the 1940s. As the state must move away from imperial escapades, it must also modernize its social norms. As much as the male protagonists fight for freedom in academia and social life, they remain oblivious to including females in their vision for a better Japan. Kurosawa sets the new standard for the female lead in cinema, while remaining honest to his political vision for Japan after the war.

This article was written by Daniel Michael, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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