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.


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.