The final cresting of Akira Kurosawa's short-lived interest in female strength, which started a year earlier with The Most Beautiful and ebbed thereafter into shrews and Lady Macbeths. Not that his heroine has it easy -- carefree Setsuko Hara relishes the "garden of freedom" of the university with her friends, machine-gun fire is heard, a soldier is found writhing in the bushes. It is 1933, the Sino-Japanese War ignites student revolt, her professor father (Denjiro Okochi) finds himself accused of seditious teachings; Hara, a "strange little girl" who liked toy airplanes more than dolls, is still bored with politics but already rebellious toward the rigidity of flower-arrangement classes, and toward the servility expected from women in society. Her true love, a fiery radical (Susumu Fujita), tells her she needs "a slap in the face" in order to grow up, but his departure from her life is enough, and a succession of distraught dissolves (gleaned from Maya Deren) sends her from the coziness of her Kyoto home to bustling, wartime Tokyo. Seasons change, viewed from within the building where Fujita works clandestinely, the two meet again as both grope for identity in turbulent times, with the youthfully experimental Kurosawa overseeing it all -- they get married then arrested as spies, mug-shot freeze-frames are followed by knee-high tracking shots through the prison halls, swinging pendulums superimposed and Takashi Shimura handling bad-cop duties in close-up. For the rest, Hara carries the weight of liberation by herself, flexing her independence by breaking her back in the rice fields with her disgraced in-laws: scowling faces and the chortling of nature are piled on top of WWII defeat until Hara earns her heroic low-angled camera. Cultural and personal identity are braided, and, called by a dissolve from dainty palms tickling piano keys to battered ones at the river, hands are needed; the force of women, which to the later Kurosawa holds little more than treachery, here radiates the possibility of national renewal, hope for the future and no regrets for the past. With Akitake Kono. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce