As I mentioned last week, I plan, from time to time, to talk here about some of the lesser known films of Akira Kurosawa, especially his war-time and post-war work. Last time, we looked at his fourth film, They Who Step On The Tiger’s Tail. Today, I’ll be talking about his second picture, The Most Beautiful.
If you compare the looks of Kurosawa’s first and second films, Sanshiro Sugata and The Most Beautiful, to his third and fourth, Sanshiro Sugata Part II and They Who Step On The Tiger’s Tail, it might be hard to believe it’s the same director at work. Kurosawa came out of the gate with a very accomplished first film, and his talent became more and more obscured as the war dragged on, before finding his feet again in peacetime. Part of the decline in his films could then be said to be due to the interference of the Japanese government at the time, though exhaustion and especially depression, something that frequently plagued Kurosawa, are more likely culprits.
The Most Beautiful deals with an aircraft lens factory in wartime Japan and a team of young girls working in it. When the call comes from the government of a need for more parts, the chief of the factory (Takashi Shimura) orders an increase in production. The girls, lead by their group representative Ms. Watanabe (Yoko Yaguchi), ask for their production estimate to be raised to match the boys’ one. The team then spend the next few months working feverishly to make good on it, all while facing delays through sickness, injuries and mistakes.
Kurosawa said he was actively recruited by the Japanese government to make some kind of film to aid the war effort. In response, he made The Most Beautiful. Perhaps part of the reason the film is so little seen is that it has been labelled a propaganda picture. Naturally it is, the movie is about children who want to be worked harder to make war materials. But of course most of the films made world-wide at the same time were propaganda, that says nothing about how interesting they are to watch.
The film spends plenty of time to showing civilian military-style parades, frequently repeats a pro-war song of the time, and plays out a few fascist speeches in their entirety. I particularly like when rows of small, teenage girls are swearing an oath to destroy the British, that raised a smile. At another moment, stark white on black writing flashes on the screen, the names of recent loses in the war (The Makin islands, the Marshall islands etc), while Yoko Yaguchi shouts out words of encouragement, ostensibly to her volleyball team, but in reality directly at the audience.
The film is of its time, but in one instance the propaganda aspects actually help the movie. Strung up on the various locations we see a number of motivational banners that are used quite cleverly throughout, especially in one montage sequence of the factory. My favourite says “This factory is also a battleground”, another one that appears at a suitably depressing time in the movie is telling the children that their parents are happy and relaxing at home. It might seem a little like slightly heavy-handed set design, but the banners were probably real or at least very similar since the picture was approved by the government.
Some of the other claims of propaganda surrounding the film actually just seem like Japanese society to me, not necessarily anything to do with the war. The notion that your personal feelings, interests, inputs or desires should be put away in the interests of the smooth operation of the larger, clumsy machine doesn’t seem much less true now than it was in 1944. The character of Ms Okabe in the film is a problem and worry to her supervisor, because she doesn’t want to play volleyball. She has the cheek to neither like the sport nor be any good at it.
I read once a complaint that the managers of the factory were so friendly and understanding, but I don’t see this as propaganda at all. Why ought they not to be humorous and friendly, they are workmen supervising 14 year olds in a lens factory, not guards in Burmese POW camp. I wish Kurosawa had shown more of these men, who have had to combine their jobs as technicians with new roles almost like junior high school teachers.
Whatever the aims of the government when they commissioned the picture, it’s mostly about the lives of these young women and the small dramas which surround them. This could quite easily be a school drama, as it should be and would be if there had not been a war on. Kurosawa starts the picture with a hint of how ridiculous the situation is, as the factory chief gives an impassioned speech about the future of the country, the tide of the war, the camera pans over elementary school-age boys standing to attention, ready for work. Kurosawa, a radical and leftist in his youth, had said he really knew how bad the war was going when he was brought in to the draft office, and found himself standing to be inspected, in a line with children and the mentally handicapped. He surely had an idea by the time he made this movie, though I’m not suggesting it overrides the propagandist message.
One of my favourite scenes in the film is a particularly touching one. After work, the girls are all told by their teacher to say hello to their parents, then get ready at once for band practice. They all rush to their rooms, and we’re given a brief montage of each girl greeting her parents, but the rooms are empty. The mothers and fathers they are speaking to are just pictures hanging on the wall. One girl seems reluctant to leave the picture of her mother, and her roommate actually rebukes her for being selfish and tells her to hurry up for their military drum band practice.
The film is early Kurosawa, so that means a variety of faster paced visual techniques in stark contrast to much of his later work. I spoke a little of this when I mentioned Sanshiro Sugata and Tiger’s Tail, it’s true here and of most of his films up until around 1950. For instance, the girl’s progress in their goal to reach the production estimate is plotted in an onscreen animated graph, which reappears to peak and slump as the girls deal with their own personal successes and problems.
Kurosawa again uses those rapid cuts quite often for effect, especially in the volleyball match sequences. He frequently uses a quick series of cuts to close in on a tense scene, each cut getting closer and closer, something he also does in Stray Dog. There’s even what appears to be a series of jump cuts, as Watanabe changes pose several times while waiting for someone to take a temperature of all things. Near the end of the film a number of scenes from earlier in the picture are cut in as flashbacks, but take on another meaning, similar to Sanshiro Sugata’s illuminating visions. Near the end of the picture, Watanabe has a short dream, in which she sees one of her lenses in use, helping to shoot down a plane, before snapping back awake at her job.
All the different elements of the film are well staged, there’s no doubt that after watching this and Sugata, audiences must have known Kurosawa was a true talent. The director manages to capture the playfulness and youth of the children, but also gives serious attention to the comparatively small issues that are troubling them. A small quarrel from frayed nerves ends up in a little courtroom style scene, in which a number of treads from earlier come together, and are given impressive weight and importance in the film. A scene at the end involves Ms Watanabe having to work all night to check all the lenses* is good, but I love the moment right afterward. After finally finding the faulty lens at 3am, and after being so mature and in control for the whole movie, she breaks down and bursts into tears.
Ms Watanabe, the head girl, is a well written and complicated character. Also she’s in charge, she’s not perfect, and it’s implicit in the film that too much responsibly is being heaped on to such a young girl. Even the managers seem to realise this, though nothing is done to help her. In one scene, after getting a letter from her father makes her homesick, she goes silently to check the train timetable, but the problems of another girl intervene and she has to put off her plan to flee home to continue with her responsibility. The movie is about working your best for your country, but it’s also about the building of a leader. At the end, the adults stand around almost breathless with respect, as Watanabe turns down her chance to go home thanks to a personal tragedy to continue with her work. Naturally, this is a plus in the propaganda stakes, but it’s also true to the character, how she has been written and played.
All the girls are excellent in the picture and have a genuine report. Kurosawa actually moved them into dorms together for the making of this movie, and they interact extremely naturally, with none of that ‘acting’ movies are full of these days, and precocious young people are often guilty of. Special mention must go to Yoko Yaguchi who plays Watanabe. She’s more of an actress than the others, but she has a likeable energy and determination, which makes it even more touching to watch her becoming exhausted by all the hardship she faces in order to bring all the girls with her to meet the estimate. It’s funny that after completing this film, having played a strong, capable and independent young woman dedicated to her work, Yoko Yaguchi then married Akira Kurosawa and never acted again. It’s a great shame, as I’d love to have seen more of her work.
Part of the reason this film hasn’t been seen is that, like so many early Kurosawa films, it is so difficult to get a hold of. Unlike Sanshiro Sugata, I have never seen a copy of The Most Beautiful outside of Asia, though there may be one. There are two DVDs in Japan, one from a few years ago that does not have English subtitles, and a more recent one that I haven’t seen. There is also a Hong Kong DVD which does have English subtitles, but they are terrible and that print is very hard to see. Unfortunately, it looks like movies such as The Most Beautiful will continue to be ignored until someone like Criterion can find the time to put these films in handsome sets that’ll catch the eye of curious viewers.
*Isn’t staying up all night to check the clarity of military lenses probably a horrible idea? I can’t imagine a worse job, other than maybe bomb disposal, for someone who can’t keep their eyes open.