Flowers on the knoll, blazing crimson red
Plants along the river, a bright, glowing green
I sigh in delight at the flowers of Kyoto
The moon rising high above Mount Yoshida
Yukie is the daughter of Professor Yagihara of Kyoto University. She spends her days with old Yagihara’s students, prancing in the fields and streams around the capital, singing songs like the one above. In 1933 the students of Kyoto University feel compelled to react to state attempts to suppress academic freedom. They appeal to Yagihara, who was once a bit of a romantic revolutionary, but he is old, tenured and doesn’t think it wise for his students to get themselves expelled by demonstration. A handful of riots settle the issue. Many students and professors are given the boot and some arrested, including Ryukichi Noge, probably the most intelligent and single-minded of the bunch. Yukie won’t admit to herself that she’s in love with him.
The screenplay is rather weak. The idiom ‘academic freedom’ is bandied about as if it’s something elemental for the characters, possessing a necessity and potency like water. If the students feel pressed to give throat to their revolutionary impulse, it’s always a cry for ‘academic freedom’. It’s even humorously mirrored in the newspapers, a headline reading something like “Academic Freedom Crushed” following the riots. Kurosawa claims the script was rewritten against his will, as the film was produced between the two great Toho strikes of 1946, but as for how the original and the finished product differ, who can say? Playwright Eijirô Hisaita wrote the original script, and he would go on to help write Kurosawa’s The Idiot, The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low. The gist of this is imperial Japan, gearing for war and closing the doors and windows to creative and intellectual outlets that might undermine the planned hegemony of Southeast Asia.
What’s strong is the acting, particularly from postwar beauty Setsuko Hara as Yukie and Toho regular Susumu Fujita as Ryukichi Noge. Setsuko successfully embodies a character who evolves: from a mercurial object of worship in her youth to a fragile married woman and finally to a noble ascetic. Not only does Yukie age credibly over the course of thirteen years, but Setsuko’s physiognomy changes in accompaniment: her outer ferocity gives way to an uncertain sensitivity, but by film’s end there is a strength and moral resolve that glows in her aspect. Noge is underplayed deftly by Susumu Fujita, who seems capable of changing his appearance with little effort. Simply by removing his glasses and school uniform Noge ages ten years. His bittersweet romance with Yukie is played with restraint; neither of them seems to be saying what they mean. Noge, through the realization that his mortal clock is ticking, wishes to say everything and nothing—nothing because death looms. And Yukie doesn’t wish to acknowledge that her Eden is a false one. She knows full well that the danger of living with Noge is what drew her to him yet she doesn’t want him to realize that she understands the total aspect of his work. The pathos of this doomed relationship is well-depicted by all.
Unfortunately, much of the film is buoyed by sentimental sobs, as if the sight of tears in a character’s face is enough to induce them in the audience. Probably another result of script conflicts. Things get more interesting when Yukie resolves to visit Noge’s parents after his death. Ostensibly she’s there to bring them his ashes, but her real intention is to make them understand the gravity of their son’s life and of his death as she now understands it. She earns their respect gradually through toil in the rice fields, in spite of the taunts of “traitor” and “spy” hurled at her repeatedly by the neighboring children. These taunts culminate in the total decimation of the Noges’ rice fields shortly before harvest. Kurosawa has definitely borrowed from the Soviet model here for Yukie (recalling Eisenstein’s Marfa Latkina from Staroye i novoye aka Old and New) as well as conforming to the Soviet realist demand for selfless, collective toil. Yukie dusts her stepparents off as well as herself and starts all over again.
When she returns home to Kyoto she is a changed woman. She recalls her University days with fondness, recalls a time of innocence before the weight of the world and the war changed her generation forever. In revisiting the fields and streams a group of students pass by singing her old school song and Kurosawa gives us a nice bit of montage from the film’s beginning. Then the final shot and perhaps the film’s best has Yukie riding a truck into the sunset, arm-in-arm with farmers who once were a step below her station. Kurosawa’s individualist impulse would grow in the years to come, but Yukie too is a character that acts upon her native instincts, choosing the hard life and its rewards over the one projected for her. She undergoes a process of illumination, of self-discovery, perhaps the principle theme of all the themes of Kurosawa’s cinema.