No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)

1 11 2008

I must be missing something extremely important here, because I personally think this is one of the very best Japanese films of the 1940s. There wasn’t much competition in that category, what with the war and its aftermath, but still I can’t help but wonder why this isn’t more well-known. It stars the great Setsuko Hara in one of her few pre-Ozu performances that is widely available for western audiences. She’s absolutely amazing in this, as is the great Haruko Sugimura and they’re both placed in the rough, gritty, yet poetic landscapes of Akira Kurosawa, quite possibly the most famous Asian filmmaker of all-time. Yet, not many people seem to be ecstatic about this film as I am.

I’ve read a few reviews stating that this is essentially Kurosawa trying to do an Ozu film, but that is actually pretty far from the truth. It’s extremely hard to comprehend, but this was before Ozu even started his now famous collaboration with Setsuko Hara. This is still one of Kurosawa’s most gentle efforts, but at this point in his career, he had yet to become a full force “action” director. It’s not as though this is his self-conscious attempt at making a more human drama. His earliest efforts do point to his interest in being an action director, but I’m guessing this is most likely a result from Kurosawa channeling two of his greatest influences: John Ford and Sadao Yamanaka.

She made many films in between, but there is still a chance that Setsuko Hara caught Kurosawa’s eye in Yamanaka’s Kochiyama soshun, one of his three surviving films and the only one currently unavailable with English subtitles. Hara’s performance here is a bit more dramatic than her collaborations with Ozu, but that’s almost a given. She is still an absolute joy to watch. There’s something extremely appealing about her, that (I think) goes beyond physical appearance. She perfectly evokes a sense of nostalgic longing that immediately echoes Hiroshi Shimizu’s work, particularly Kanzashi, which this film gives a few visual nods towards. Kurosawa’s film does not have that superficial upbeatness, but is instead, more emotionally straight-forward. Both films prove that the two approaches can be equally effective.

When Hara’s character goes to visit her dead husband’s parents in the film’s final act, the visual beauty is taken to another level. These gritty, sweaty, and dirty sequences seem to owe much to John Ford, particularly films like How Green Was My Valley and The Grapes of Wrath. Kurosawa emulates the lovely visuals of Ford’s films and transports them to his own type of rough and battered landscapes. At the same time, he enfuses these beautiful montages displaying poetic sides of the film’s opening. At any time in the movie, it seems like Kurosawa is willing to quickly cut to the shot of college kids running through the woods while having a soft-spoken voiceover reinforce the heartbreaking nostalgia felt by Hara’s character. At the very least, this is definitely the best ending I’ve seen in any Kurosawa film. This is probably his best film overall as well.

Days and Nights in the Forest (1970)

1 11 2008

Of all the Satyajit Ray films I’ve watched lately, this is by far the most emotionally and formally mature effort. I suppose this shouldn’t be a huge surprise since it is also the youngest film I’ve seen of his. Whatever the case, this definitely takes what I liked about Charulata and Nayak and put into a stylistic context that is a bit more calm but confident. Calling this an Antonioni film with a lot of dialogue would be a pretty good idea of the overall tone. Even though I would have preferred for the film to be a bit less talkative, it is still pretty impressive that Ray was able to juggle all the talking and still make a very “contemplative” experience.

The characters here are a lot more accessible than the ones in the other Ray films I’ve seen, including Pather Panchali. Here, the story centers around a group of four males, seemingly longtime friends, who take a break from their draining work lives to vacation in an isolated forest. It’s by far the most free form narrative structure I’ve seen in a Ray film and it compliments the slightly conscious “character study” element of the film. It’s the same sort of character-driven tone that is found in the last three Ray films I’ve watched, but it feels a bit more calm and unhurried here.

It’s a bit ironic then that this film is substantially shorter than Mahanager as that film tries to cram a lot into its 135 minute running time. Here, the characters are quickly laid out. One can quickly immerse themselves into their interactions. It helps a great deal that the visual style here is much more consistent than it is in most of Ray’s other films. It wouldn’t be all that surprising to see an extremely shaky handheld sequence followed by a long static take in some of his films from the 1960s, but here, everything feels much more unified and cohesive.

So while this feels like one of Ray’s longest (or perhaps just slowest) films, it also feels like one of his most satisfying. It’s one of his most “complete” and “fufilling” films simply because it takes the time to push the audience into the world of its characters and there is very little dramatic pacing to follow. There is some hints at conventional dramatic turns towards the film’s conclusion, but it is certainly not enough to taint the previous hour and forty minutes.