Kurosawa Watch: The Most Beautiful (1944)

Kurosawa Watch: The Most Beautiful (1944)

Akira Kurosawa’s second film 一番美しく Ichiban utsukushiku is generally translated into English as The Most Beautiful.

The film is an example of home front war propaganda. It tells the story of a group of women factory workers, although I believe they are mostly meant to be adolescents since they are occasionally referred to as children and they are indeed very young. They work at an optics factory making lenses for the military.

The film opens as the factory director, played by Takashi Shimura (who also appeared in Kurosawa’s first film), speaks to the factory workers over a public address system to tell them that their production targets are being increased by 100% for the men and 50% for the women.

As the camera slowly moves along the floor where the women are working we see women breaking from their work to talk to each other. I felt Kurosawa playing with the expectation that women are gossips and talkers, unable to buckle down and resentful that they are being asked to do more work, because I expected what came next: The women are in fact angry; they’re angry they are only being asked to increase their production by 50%. The head worker of their unit, played by Yoko Yaguchi, goes to the factory managers and tells them (with a great deal of apology and humility) that the women want to aim for a higher increase. Of course, she says, they can’t manage a 100% increase like the men but they want to try for a 2/3rds increase.

The rest of the film follows these mostly very young women as they struggle through illness, accident, exhaustion, personal conflicts, and family tragedy to keep the production goals.

While this is very much a film driven by propaganda constraints, it offers an unexpected glimpse into the lives of women of that era. I don’t know how much is propaganda and how much is taken from Kurosawa’s actual observations at a factory during the war (I did not research his working methods for the film). It is a given that the film must portray the young women as wanting to serve the cause nobly and with their greatest efforts.

At first they meet their targets. Then obstacles arise. One young woman gets ill and begs the dorm mother (played in a lovely, warm performance by Takako Irie) not to tell her parents because they will come and take her home, which indeed her father (a farmer) does, leaving their group one short. Another woman falls from the roof while laying out bedding to air dry; she returns to the factory with a cast on her foot as soon as she can. Stress from the pace of work brings quarrels eventually solved with everyone blaming themselves and asking for forgiveness.

One of my favorite elements of the story is that the group is also trained as a fife and drum corps. They play for parades and festival days. They march to and from the factory each day (leaving and returning to their dormitory) either singing or marching. Early in the film they sing a song about the Mongol invasion of Japan which famously ended in total defeat and disaster for the Mongol fleet.

As always, Kurosawa’s framing of scenes is matchless. People and structures are always arranged in pleasing configurations with camera angles to match. It’s fascinating to me to see how good he was at this from the get go, although he had been working in the industry for some time before he started directing so presumably he had developed the basics of an artistic philosophy before his first film.

The Most Beautiful is a complete film with a full narrative architecture (even within the propaganda limits) so it isn’t quite fair to compare it to Sanshiro Sugata, which lacks some 17 minutes of film and is choppier in terms of plot. But with the second film I already feel I am in the hands of a director who knows exactly he wants and can bring it to life on the screen.

A final aside: This film focuses mostly on women (the male characters are all in support roles), and it is mostly women’s faces and women’s interactions with each other that we see. I loved this aspect of the film especially because I already I know most of Kurosawa’s films focus on men, even those that include one or two important female characters.

Takako Irie, who plays the dorm mother, was a big star in Japan who had her own production company. She plays a warm and compassionate “mother figure” who deeply cares for her charges. There’s a brief and affecting moment where we realize she is a widow and that her husband has died fighting in the war, and it’s interesting how this is lightly touched on because it doesn’t need to be hammered in. Everyone watching this was affected by the ongoing war in a way those of us watching it from this distance can’t measure.

The other main female character is Tsuru Watanabe, the leader of the women workers, played by Yoko Yaguchi with marvelous clarity and determination. She married Kurosawa after this film. I know nothing about her except what I read on Wikipedia which includes this fascinating tidbit: states that “while working on [The Most Beautiful] Yaguchi clashed over the alleged ways the director treated the actors.” She seems to have retired from acting after marriage.

What a lovely and interesting film which would be even more interesting for those who have a better grasp of the specific context in which it was made. Recommended!

Next up: Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two (1945). Yes, indeed, Hollywood did not invent the sequel all by itself.

Kurosawa Watch: Sanshiro Sugata (1943)

SANSHIRO SUGATA is Akira Kurosawa’s debut film as director, first shown in 1943. He also wrote the screenplay based on a novel by Tsuneo Tomita.


The story is set in the late 1800s and follows a young man (Sanshiro Sugata, played by Susumu Fujita) seeking to find a martial arts teacher. He arrives in town to study jujitsu, but after witnessing an altercation between a jiujitsu master and his students and a single judo master, Yano, he asks to study with Yano.

The primary conflict in the film is Sugata against his own lack of self control and his reliance on strength rather than training. He has to learn to control himself in order to master martial arts and become Yano’s leading student. After Yano’s expels him for fighting in the street, Sugata plunges himself into a cold lake overnight, and in the morning the sun’s light falls upon a blooming lotus flower as a symbol of his ability to master himself.

There are two intertwined secondary conflicts. The town’s police department wants to hire one of the local martial arts schools to train its officers. Matches are set up to determine which school is best. In one match Sugata so overpoweringly throws his opponent (the unsympathetic jujitsu master seen in the opening sequence) that the fall kills the other man.

The final match will pit Sugata against the respected master Murai. This match gains additional tension when Sugata meets Murai’s daughter Sayo because one of her geta (wooden shoes) breaks on a steep stairway leading up to the temple where she prays regularly. A series of short scenes makes it clear the two are attracted to each other (although never that crudely stated) even if Sugata doesn’t quite know how to understand or express such a feeling. By the way, Sayo is a lovely character. Yukiko Todoroki is wonderful in the role. Her charisma lights the screen in what is a fairly small role in terms of screen time. She got her start in show business in the Takarazuka Revue.

As the match between Sugata and Murai begins, the viewer knows how strong Sugata is, and doesn’t want him to harm Murai. At the same time, Sugata has to win in order to gain the police training contract for his master. In the end Murai is thrown three times before he concedes, and afterward Sugata goes to his home to make sure he is recovering.

As this secondary plot line unfolds a mysterious man arrives to challenge Yano’s students, specifically Sugata. This man, Higaki, is also clearly interested in Sayo Murai. After Sugata’s victory, Higaki makes a final demand for a match to the death.


This match plays out in a wind-torn field of tall grass in a striking and dramatic manner that to my mind absolutely presages the rest of Kurosawa’s career and how he uses nature as a way of understanding human emotion and conflict and the human presence in the natural world. It’s a phenomenal scene, filled with energy and foreboding.


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What we can now watch is not the entire film Kurosawa made. Wartime censors cut out 17 minutes, which have never been recovered although the full script is extant. I don’t know what precisely was removed but there were certainly some leaps between scenes where it felt as if interactions were missing, perhaps particularly with Sayo’s plot line. Someone who has read the script would have a better idea.


Some of the lighting feels murky but, again, I don’t know enough about film history to know if this reflects the techniques of the time or the physical aging process of film itself.


Besides the amazing final duel in the windswept field, two other things struck me about this film.


One of the things I love about Kurosawa is how he composes people within the frame of the screen. This is already apparent in this film. People are never haphazardly placed. Empty space isn’t just there, or filled with random background sets. The camera might dwell for 3 seconds on four men on the screen, three seated and one standing, and how they are arranged is art. Seeing this aspect of his work so clearly in his first film was kind of amazing to me.


Kurosawa is might well be best known in the West for his long collaboration with actor Toshiro Mifune. But I could not help but notice that while Mifune is not in this film (and could not have been since he was, I believe in the Japanese army stationed in Manchuria during the war), another longtime Kurosawa actor is: Takashi Shimura. So I checked, and indeed Shimura appeared in 21 of Kurosawa’s 30 films, which makes him the actor Kurosawa worked with most. I was delighted to see him here. He had a long and distinguished career in film from 1934 to 1981. His Wikipedia entry says that during the war he was arrested and held for three weeks due to his prior involvement with left-wing theater groups.


Next up: THE MOST BEAUTIFUL (1944).


Again, I’m using The Criterion Channel to view these early films (subscription required). I’ll write up a post in about two weeks (circa January 24).

Kurosawa Watch Project 2021: a viewalong

Purely for myself I have decided to attempt a chronological watch of Akira Kurosawa’s films.

Over the years I have seen more films by Kurosawa than by any other single director. Seven Samurai is probably the film I have watched the most times of any film (not counting films my children watched over and over again when they were little).

Kurosawa’s ability to compose within the frame and his adeptness at action sequences are two of the many things I love about his work. The rise of streaming access strikes me as a great opportunity to view an artist’s work as it unfolds across decades.

Please join me at any time during the year. My goal is to average 2 Kurosawa films a month. I’ll be posting a non academic commentary on each film as I see it, and I’d love to appreciate and discuss the films with others who have seen them too.

To begin with I will be using the Criterion Channel. Currently it seems to offer all but four of his 30 films. That availability may change, but for the moment it has all the early films which I feel might be hardest to find in other venues.

The first film is Sanshiro Sugata (1943). It’s 80 minutes long and I’ve already watched it. I’ll post my comments next Sunday January 10 on this blog.

Spiritwalker Universe fiction


I will always be grateful to the enthusiastic and devoted readers who have championed my Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk regency adventure alternate-history fantasy, with magic both cold and fire, revolution, Phoenician spies, well-dressed men and hungry women, female friendship, a spirit world dangerously intertwined with the mortal world, sword fights and battles and ball games, world trees, the talking heads of decapitated poets, legal niceties, and therefore of course lawyer dinosaurs. Where would we be without lawyer dinosaurs, I ask you?

A fiery red and gold dragon rises from a smoky ocean while two young women who are carrying a chest between them stare up at its fearsome majesty. Illustration by Julie Dillon.

The Spiritwalker Trilogy:

COLD MAGIC

COLD FIRE

COLD STEEL


Short Fiction

Bloom is a novelette set in the Spiritwalker universe about eight years before COLD MAGIC. While a few familiar characters appear, it is actually about an entirely different character’s journey through grief. A quiet story that I really love, it is available in THE BOOK OF MAGIC, edited by Gardner Dozois.

A Compendium of Architecture and the Science of Building is a short story set about a year after Bloom and takes place at Four Moons House. The elderly uncle of the mansa who has come home to retire after many years working abroad as architect, but things don’t work out quite as he expects. It appears (free!) in Lightspeed Magazine (includes an audio version).

The Beatriceid is Bee’s retelling in verse of the story of Dido and Aeneas, obviously the more correct version. Set during Cat and Bee’s school days at the Academy, the events take place before COLD MAGIC and as such can be read at any moment, especially if you enjoy the AENEID or like to take the piss out of the Romans, as I do. My apologies because at the moment there is no version of it online. It was originally published by Book Smugglers Publishing. As soon as there is an online version I’ll link here.

To Be A Man (A Roderic Barr Adventure) takes place at the same time as the final chapter of COLD MAGIC. This story has no redeeming social value whatsoever. You’ve been warned. You can read it on this website for free. An audio version is available for purchase (a mere $0.99) at Serial Box.
A print version appears in the collection THE VERY BEST OF KATE ELLIOTT (Tachyon Publications).

Cold Fire Bonus Chapter 31.5 (to be read after chapter 31 of Cold Fire, natch). XXX rated. No, really. I wrote it because N.K. Jemisin made me. If you, dear Reader, do not care for smut (and no reason anyone should), then it is perfectly fine to skip this chapter; the trilogy works fine without it. If you do like smut, here you go.

The Courtship is a coda novelette, to be read after the end of Cold Steel. It wraps up a couple of loose ends (but not all of them). It is available on this website HERE (contains adult situations and nudity).

The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal (with 28 fabulous black and white illustrations by Hugo Award winning artist Julie Dillon) is available at Gumroad as a pdf for $3.50. Discover Bee’s side of the story, with pictures from her sketchbook!

“I Am A Handsome Man,” Said Apollo Crow takes place after the Spiritwalker Trilogy and features an unusual denizen of the spirit world. It is available in THE BOOK OF SWORDS, edited by Gardner Dozois.

A Lesson To You Young Ones is a very short story featuring Maester Godwik, one of my favorite lawyer dinosaurs, and the lesson he teaches a classroom full of young pupils. It is available on this website.

When I Grow Up might best be described as the coda to the coda. Currently available on the mighty Book Smugglers site.

In addition, I have four partially written but as yet unfinished Spiritwalker stories I hope to complete, after which I would like to put together an illustrated Spiritwalker short fiction edition. In truth, I had hoped to create and complete that project for the 10th Anniversary of the publication of COLD MAGIC but life intervened and I didn’t have the energy, so a Spiritwalker collection remains a future goal.


UNCONQUERABLE SUN: Discussion Zone

If you’ve read UNCONQUERABLE SUN and want to discuss any or all aspects of the story and universe, ask questions, or make easter egg guesses, this is the blog place to do so. SPOILERS ALLOWED. SPOILERS BEWARE.

There is also a Discord server for those who prefer that, which you can find at this link.

I’m using both venues because some people don’t use Discord at all or prefer comments on a blog.

To answer one question right up front: I’m working on book two, although with some pandemic delays. The hope and plan is for a Fall 2021 publication date.

cover of Unconquerable Sun

Where to find me online these days: an interim post

After mostly dropping offline and out of this blog for several years, I am readapting my online presence.

You can still most reliably find me online on Twitter at KateElliottSFF. I do have an Instagram account (also KateElliottSFF) although I don’t use it much. I deleted my Facebook account some months ago.

My newsletter is now on Substack, which means News generally shows up on my substack site once a month or so. If you are here looking for news, look there first.

I haven’t decided how to go forward with this particular site in the future; I like the ease of attaching Substack to my newsletter, which is why I went there. I do intend to update my old web site at kateelliott.com but I’m not sure when that will happen. Soon! (I hope.)

UNCONQUERABLE SUN is still scheduled for 7/7/2020. Pre-orders are genuinely helpful for writers, as is library use. Thank you!

Readjusting my online presence and deleting Facebook

I’ve been mulling over deleting my Facebook account for a few years now. While the platform works well for others, it has never meshed well with me. These days I’m increasingly suspicious of FB’s motives and business model. Thus, I’m finally shutting it down.

Because I’ve been on FB so little over the last two or three years, deleting the account will have little effect on my public author social media presence. Mostly I may lose easy contact with many friends and family, some of whom are on other platforms (like Twitter) but some of whom are only on FB. Nevertheless as 2020 looms and with it the launch of my newest series, I have to think about how, where, why, and what I want to be online.

Some writers like marketing and publicity and are good at it. I’m not one of them, which is one of several reasons I do not self publish.

It’s a truism that it’s best not to try to be something online that you aren’t or can’t sustain. Trying to curate an online presence in a way that makes you unhappy or that stresses you out is definitely not sustainable. This is one reason I remain on Twitter. While Twitter has its hellscape side, it remains the current platform I most enjoy.

It’s been easy for me to fall into the trap of believing that if I just do something better, something more time and creativity consuming, with my online presence, that I can become more visible, more successful, on the basis of the extra heaps of work I put in. While the changing nature of the marketplace means writers should, if they can, build new skillsets as a form of adaptation, it does not mean they have to do everything or have to do things they simply aren’t good at or don’t have time for, if that time spent takes away from what they are, presumably, best at, which in my case is writing fiction.

It’s counterproductive for me to take away energy and time from writing fiction, even as hard as it can be to just say no sometimes to thinking I can do it all and that somehow if I churn churn churn then my hamster wheel will shift location. But the whole point of the hamster wheel is that it tires out the hamster without its base moving an inch.

At the same time, I’m not going to vanish from online. I value the friendships I’ve made and sustain, the networking, the outreach, the humor, and the amazing ability we now have to touch base with people all over the world with astonishing ease.

I have no idea what will emerge next in terms of online platforms, so for now I’m going to focus my online presence on Twitter, my newsletter (you can sign up here if you haven’t already), and a renewed presence on this blog for people who may want to ask questions or interact in a quiet corner of the internet that is under my control.

Free book giveaway for teachers and librarians! Thanksgiving 2017

For Thanksgiving I’d like to thank librarians and teachers for their hard work by giving away several dozen copies of my books to teachers and librarians.

Here’s how this will work (and with thanks to Malinda Lo who gave me her template for a librarian/teacher giveaway):

·   this giveaway is only for teachers and librarians (any librarians, not just youth librarians). I’m particularly hoping that libraries and schools that have low/non-existent book buying budgets can take advantage of this giveaway. I’d also love to see my YA trilogy in the hands of more teens!

·   first-come, first-served basis, because that’s what I can handle. If your first choice is gone, you’ll get your second choice, etc, until all the books are gone.

·   I am paying for all the shipping costs, so this is totally free to you. However, this means I can only ship to US mailing addresses. Sorry, non-US folks; I can’t afford the international shipping costs. The books will go out media mail so it may take some time for them to arrive.

·  I will sign the books. (signed only, not personalized)

FOLLOW THESE DIRECTIONS:

1.  Email me at ke@imakeupworlds.com with the subject header Teacher/Librarian Giveaway.

2.  Please email me either from your work email or reference your work email in the body of the email so I can tell you’re legit (sorry, you know how it goes these days).

3. Include a mailing address so I can mail the books without having to ask for further information.

4.  List three choices in order of preference (as 1. 2. and 3.) I will fulfill first come/first served according to what is still available, so you’ll get your top choice if that’s still available, second if it isn’t, third (etc), until all the books are given away.

The List of Books/Audiobooks Available:

5 (five) sets of the complete Court of Fives trilogy in hardcover (Court of Fives, Poisoned Blade, & Buried Heart)

5 (five) paired sets of hardcovers of Poisoned Blade and Buried Heart

5 trade paperbacks of Poisoned Blade

5 (five) sets of the complete Court of Fives trilogy in audiobook CD (all three novels)

10 mass market copies of Cold Fire (Spiritwalker trilogy book 2)

10 trade paperbacks of Cold Steel (Spiritwalker trilogy book 3)

Thank you for the important work you do.

If you don’t want to email, or if you emailed and I didn’t respond that I’d gotten your email, you can fill out this google form:

P. S. Email me at ke@imakeupworlds.com if you have any questions.

BURIED HEART/Court of Fives Trilogy Discussion HERE

 

I’m opening up comments here for discussion of the Court of Fives trilogy, BURIED HEART  or any of the volumes specifically, both of the novellas (Night Flower and Bright Thrones), and any questions about world building details, character choices, thematic content, how much you hate Gargaron, worst/best scene, and really anything.

Or you can just comment, no discussion necessary.

SPOILERS OKAY (so if you haven’t read the entire trilogy, be warned)

I will be creating a post with all the maps ASAP.

 

 

A Tour of Saryenia (from Descriptions of Efea, a guidebook)

A Tour of the City of Saryenia

from

Descriptions of Efea (A guidebook for travelers)

Enter the royal city of Saryenia. You will see such wonders here as you never knew existed in your tour of the many countries bordering the Three Seas.

It’s true this magnificent city began as a humble Efean fishing village built between Mist Lake and the Fire Sea. The narrow, twisting lanes of the oldest part of the city, the Warrens, are all that remain of the village, and of course only Commoners–that’s what we call people of Efean ancestry–live there now.  Because the streets have no names, the only way to figure out where you are is by your proximity to the fountains at each intersection of three or four or five alleys (we can’t really call such narrow passageways “streets”). Each fountain bears the statue of an animal atop it, so the Commoners who live in the Warrens will give you directions according to how close they live to the “cat fountain” or the “scorpion fountain.” We won’t go there today, nor do we recommend you attempt to navigate that maze alone or, in truth, at all.

Saryenia has much more interesting and splendid things to see.

From off shore you’ll notice the twin hills that give the city its distinctive topography. Called the King’s Hill and the Queen’s Hill, respectively, they mark the site of the King’s Palace and the Queen’s Palace, both massive buildings easily seen from far away. Remember that the current rulers of Efea originally came from the old Empire of Saro a hundred years ago. That’s why the architecture of the two palaces will remind you of the ancient imperial capital–now abandoned–in old Saro across the sea.

The hills are mirrored by the city’s twin harbors. The East Harbor is reserved for the royal navy, so you’ll arrive in the city at the bustling West Harbor, filled with merchant ships from every part of the Three Seas. You can buy anything on the streets of the Harbor District but it will cost you extra. So don’t go shopping there!

In fact, Saryenia’s famous markets are one of its chief attractions! The best known is the Lantern Market, where by day you can buy protective amulets, perfume, cosmetics, jewelry, and gifts suitable for lovers. At night, of course, the Lantern Market turns into the Lantern District, famous for its spectacular theatrical productions and poetry competitions. At night the Lantern District also sells every manner of pleasure, which we cannot detail in a family publication like this one.

But while the Lantern District is easily the most famous of the markets, don’t neglect the others. The Grain Market may be mostly wholesale grain and agricultural goods brought in from the nearby countryside, but it has its own fascination for the many boats coming and going from the lakeside port and the constant haggling of both Commoners and the ruling class of Saroese–who call themselves Patrons–over even the smallest of onions, for Efeans have an unseemly love of bargaining. Never take the first price you’re offered.

For something special, and often overlooked by visitors, try the Ribbon Market. Its scenic location tucked into the caldera of the Queen’s Hill gives it special interest, and it’s a rigorous day of shopping with so many stairs up and down to various levels, but you can’t beat the choice of local handicrafts, especially the amazing variety of colored ribbons and the astounding array of masks that can be bought there.

By now you’re probably hankering for a drink, and we recommend one of the harborside taverns–expensive but with a thrillingly diverse clientele and plenty of rowdy sailors who often break out in song–or a quieter drink at one of the elegant restaurants below the Queen’s Garden. Avoid the over-priced drinking establishments that open onto the Avenue of Triumphs as they are packed with off-duty soldiers more than happy to pick drunken fights with unsuspecting passers-by.

No trip to Saryenia would be complete with a visit to the Archives, known as the most complete library in the Three Seas. You’ll have to apply in advance for a tour since visitors aren’t allowed to wander around as they please. The architecture alone, with its pavilions and twin libraries, will give the cultured visitor much to remark on, and with a special dispensation in hand scholars can spend time among the books and scrolls of the main library.

Of the three temples, only the Temple of the Sun can be entered on a daily basis. The Temple of the Sea (not marked on the map) is currently under renovation and closed to the public. The Temple of Justice serves as a court, overseen by the king, and as with any working establishment you must have a case pending in order to enter. The Eternity Temple does not admit visitors at all, but like all citizens of Efea you can cross under its gate and enter the City of the Dead, the sacred peninsula where the tombs of the departed stand. Here, if you are bold, you can partake in the most peculiar and horrifying of Efean customs: Should you care to bring an offering to one of the tombs that houses a living oracle, you may present the gift to her and hope to receive an augury of your future from her lips. Although the local Patrons think this a perfectly commonplace act, few visitors dare to seek out the whispered words of an oracle, and in truth we advise even the most intrepid travelers to consider this local custom one they should assiduously avoid.

After all, if you get restless, you can crown your trip with an afternoon at the City Fives Court where the best athletes of Efea compete to be first to the victory tower. Thrill to their strength and agility! Marvel at their quick thinking and clever maze-running! Gasp at their daring leaps and acrobatics from heights high enough that a fall would kill! You’ll find the Fives nowhere else in all the countries bordering the Three Seas, and it’s a competition that shouldn’t be missed.

Just as Saryenia should not be missed, for it is indeed a unique city. We hope you enjoy your visit!

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For some great visuals check out 5 Visual Descriptions of the City of Saryenia at The Novl.