Monday, February 10, 2014

Director Spotlight #16.2: Akira Kurosawa's Postwar Films

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the incalculably influential Akira Kurosawa.

NOTE: Because I try to go in-depth in these entries, there’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

As with any director of his era, Akira Kurosawa was greatly affected by the fallout of World War II. Where half of his features made during the war were at least partially propaganda films, his first two postwar efforts saw him trying to wrestle with how the war shaped the lives of ordinary people. Neither No Regrets for Our Youth nor One Wonderful Sunday can be counted among Kurosawa’s best, but both see the director’s growing thoughtfulness.

No Regrets for Our Youth: 76/B+

Kurosawa’s first postwar feature follows Yukie (Setsuko Hara), the daughter of Kyoto Imperial University professor Yagihara (Denjirō Ōkōchi). Yagihara has been fired from his job for his leftist political views, and a number of his students have taken to protest against the fascist government. Two of Yagihara’s students harbor feelings for Yukie: firebrand activist leader Ryukichi Noge (Susumu Fujita) and the more pragmatic Itokawa (Akitake Kōno).

After the protest fails, Noge spends years in jail, while Itokawa becomes a prosecutor for the government. Yukie falls in love with and eventually marries Noge, but when the government learns of his involvement in a resistance, they’re both arrested. When Noge dies during interrogation, he’s branded as a traitor, and Yukie must visit his parents’ home and prove that their son was a good man.

No Regrets for Our Youth is one of Kurosawa’s only woman-centric films, and while the men perform admirably (particularly the push-pull dynamic of Fujita and Kōno), the film is nothing without the remarkable performance of Hara. The future muse of master filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu, Hara’s expressive face takes us through the whirlwind of emotions Yukie goes through: cheerful naïveté as a young woman at the university, fear as the fascists take over, desire-from-afar for Noge, heartbreak following his death, and grim determination to pull his parents and herself out of despair. To some degree, the character is written broadly as a stand-in for the average Japanese woman, but Hara gives the character a specific sense of humanity and dignity for all of her struggles.

Kurosawa occasionally leans too hard on his interest in personal freedom (Yukie, to a group of women taken aback by her deviation from normal flower arrangement: “In flower arrangement, you should express yourself freely”, CLONK). But he makes great strides as a filmmaker, with a handful of remarkable near-wordless stretches  in the film: a handful of students playing a game, chasing Yukie through the woods in a moment before the university’s idyllic nature is interrupted; a montage of the students banding together to stop fascism as their efforts slowly fail; an Eisenstein-influenced stretch of social realism as Yukie tills the rice fields, willing to sweat and bleed to earn her in-laws’ respect; and an exquisite series of long takes showing Yukie outside Noge’s workplace, longing for him, debating entering from afar, until he finally comes to her.

One Wonderful Sunday: 61/B-

No Regrets for Our Youth had a bit of Capra and Ford influence alongside the social realism; his follow-up, One Wonderful Sunday, tips the balance in favor of Capra-esque uplift. Masako (Chieko Nakakita) and her fiancé Yuzo (Isao Numasaki) are a couple in postwar Japan. They meet for a date in Tokyo one Sunday, but they only have 35 yen between the two of them. They determine to make the most of their afternoon, but they keep running into grim reminders of how little they have.

One Wonderful Sunday has a bit in common with the Italian neorealist films that showed up around the same time: both have a slice-of-life structure, and both are focused on the hardships of ordinary people. Kurosawa’s isn’t paced as well, but its focus on poverty (a lousy apartment whose clerk begs the couple to avoid, Yuzo picking up a cigarette butt because he hasn’t smoked in days) and the little things of what people do to escape it (a tour of the zoo, Yuzo playing baseball with children) shows Kurosawa’s gift for detail.

The populist elements are a bit more uneven. One of Capra’s oft-underrated talents was how skillful he was at capturing the dispiriting lows of the average American before he reached the uplift. Kurosawa has plenty of moments here: Yuzo’s wounded pride at how little money he has to offer Masako feels like something straight out of It’s a Wonderful Life (hell, it even has a similar semi-ironic title), and there’s a devastating scene halfway through the film in which Yuzo and Masako arrive at a concert hall (where they had their first date) to listen to Schubert symphony, only for a ticket-scalper to buy up all the cheap seats to sell them at 5 yen more than they can afford.

But Kurosawa lays on certain bits a bit thick (“dreams won’t fill your belly”), and his gambit for the ending’s uplift doesn’t really pay off. Yuzo tries to lift up Masako’s spirits by pretending to be a concert conductor, but he gives up, saying that he can’t hear the music. Masako then turns to the camera, breaks the fourth wall, and asks for the audience to clap and bring his spirits up. It’s admirable to see Kurosawa go out on a limb here, but it feels forced.

Still, One Wonderful Sunday is mostly affecting, and the film is a fascinating precursor to Kurosawa’s more successful populist tale, Ikiru. By the time the couple parts ways until their next Sunday date, they’re not any richer, but their desire to make each other happy might just make their lives a little easier.

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