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.