Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Written by Eijiro Hisaita and Akira Kurosawa.
Imagine an idyllic day. Young students skipping through fields of grass and flowers, singing songs, exuding the joy of youth and innocence. The moment is interrupted suddenly by machine gun fire and the body of a dying soldier. This masterful sequence is our introduction to a tale of personal and political turmoil.
In the years before WWII, the militants rose to power and started weeding out all who spoke against them. When a string of professors are forced to resign at Kyoto Imperial University, students rally in support, but they are quickly crushed by police and their leaders imprisoned.
Yukie Yagihara is the daughter of one of the professors, a wild, carefree girl who's more interested in games, songs, and the attentions of boys than she is the rapidly changing political scene. Her two main suitors are Ryukichi Noge, a passionate anti-imperialist who questions the rising militants, and Itokawa, a cautious youth willing to sell out to the system in order to live a quiet life. With one of these men, she can be comfortable. With the other, she can be fulfilled. But both will lead her to suffering.
Though it's a little heavy on the melodrama and the pace does occasionally drag, this is a masterpiece of a story, following these three through a period of almost two decades as their country continuously morphs around them. Kurosawa subtly explores how tiny choices, which seem nothing but innocent at the time, can have tremendous repercussions down the road in an inividual's life.
Setsuko Hara marvels in her performance, believably portraying the changing chapters of Yukie's life as she goes from giddy school girl, to working woman, to tense housewife, to wasted prisoner, to determined farmer in the fields. Through her acting skills and Kurosawa's brilliant direction, we see how one can never predict where a person will end up in 20 year's time.
The rest of the acting is good all round, the main standout being Susumu Fujita. Though I don't think he quite clicked with the material in Sanshiro Sugata, I continue to be impressed with his everyman sincerity, which is fully on display as the charismatic Noge. Then there's the fantastic Haruko Sugimura as Yukie's mother-in-law, who starts their relationship on a harsh note, but gradually warms with respect. And keep your eyes peeled for Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura, nearly unrecognizable as a cruel, toadish inspector.
It's not a flawless film, but has more than enough strengths to deserve greater recognition than it gets. Sadly, most of Kurosawa's works are going unwatched except by the rare few who actively seek them out. I know TCM dedicates a few nights a year to the director, but they always focus on his samurai epics, pushing these quieter, but no less worthy efforts, to the side. Shame.