Movies That Deserve Another Look: Akira Kurosawa’s ‘The Most Beautiful’

It’s certainly not the most characteristic film from Akira Kurosawa, nor is it by far his best. It is, however, one of the more intriguing entries in the career of this legendary Japanese director. The Most Beautiful is an unambiguously persuasive propaganda project, endorsed by Japan’s Office of Public Information, produced by Toho Studios in 1944, and opening with the promotion of the film’s fundamental aim: encouraging the war effort and the destruction of Japan’s enemy, namely America and its allies. Set in the Nippon Kogaku optics factory (a company later renamed, more famously, Nikon), The Most Beautiful centers around a group of women who face mounting efficiency during a period of emergency production. The men at the factory are consigned a 100% increase in their quota, while the women are given an increase of 50%. This inequitable division doesn’t sit well with these ambitious young ladies (they are almost all in their late teens or early twenties), so they make their case to the powers that be: “Is that all you think we can handle?” Their idealistic optimism and, more than anything, their unwavering patriotism, is convincing enough; now, they must meet two-thirds of the male allocation.

The Most Beautiful is an essentially episodic feature, with a semi-documentary approach and attention to workaday detail, and it’s a broad framework that perfectly suits Kurosawa’s intent. While there is enough appropriate humor to give the film a sporadically light touch (this type of propaganda wouldn’t work so well if it were all doom and gloom), most of the picture is concerned with discipline, vigilance, and respect. The emphasis is on the home front humanity of wartime exertion—“This too is a battlefield,” proclaims an omnipresent banner—and with fife and drum ensembles, the women expressing their fighting spirit by working, singing, and marching in step, Kurosawa conveys an analogous pride. The factory head, played by Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura, provides the necessary motivation, specifically as it concerns the regimentation of the work, but the requisite enthusiasm is inherent, born from a deep-seated loyalty where all things are in the service of country and family. The laborers have a pronounced reverence for the past and their individual ancestry (to fill a community garden, they bring soil from their respective hometowns). At the same time, these “women of the empire” are looking to the future, to the promised potential of brighter days ahead.

Having women as primary subjects is itself unusual for Kurosawa, but these actresses suitably communicate a range of qualities. If few ever fully form into distinct characters, their emblematic types serve the film just as well. Befitting their age, the girls are at times naturally giggly, chatting about when they should be hard at work. But they are also wise beyond their years, and the war’s obligations result in debilitating physical exhaustion and fitful emotional flux. They do their best to keep up morale, partaking in a spirited volleyball match, for example, and they contend with assorted anxieties; when one takes ill, it’s devastating for all, but for the sick, she feels grave disappointment, terrified she may have let her comrades down. Cramped all day at their workbenches and all night in their dormitories, the girls are subject to the inevitable annoyances of people pressed together during trying times, and with so much at stake, fueled by the overriding fear of failure, the team also withstands dire technical errors, perfectly understandable given the severity of the situation. There’s no doubt The Most Beautiful has an agenda, as uncomfortable as it is when considering the violence and destruction of its contemporaneous end game (this much is left implicit to say the least), and Kurosawa is blatantly speaking to a receptive target audience. But with the benefit of hindsight and historical context, their plight is one of admirable dedication, no matter the partisan divide, for these women want nothing more than to do their part.

Given this decidedly indoctrinatory intent, Kurosawa advances The Most Beautiful as a serviceable production to that end. Solidarity is underscored by large group assemblies, where only occasionally do conspicuous figures emerge from the unifying tracking sequences, and resonant images of exertion effectively mingle with a montage of toil, grinding machinery, overwhelming tedium, and precision. Though it’s not the traditional Kurosawa milieu by any means (even if the location shooting does point toward his evolving penchant for early social realism), with cinematography by Jōji Ohara, he manages to accentuate innate visual inspiration. See the powerful conclusion of the picture, for instance, where section leader Tsuru Watanabe (Yôko Yaguchi, soon to be Kurosawa’s wife) stays alone working well into the night, the solitary embodiment of determined sacrifice. Kurosawa employs a poised juxtaposition between wide, extended shots, precisely lit to stress her isolation within the darkness, then, moving closer, builds an intimate appreciation of her fatigue with each stretch and each refocusing of her tired eyes.

Following Sanshiro Sugata, his 1943 debut, Kurosawa was enlisted to make an action film about the Japanese navy’s fighter planes. By then, however, it was increasingly apparent that Japan was on the losing side of the war, so Kurosawa decided the aircraft was unlikely to be spared for a movie and moved on to The Most Beautiful, where there nevertheless remains a lingering sense of last-ditch desperation. Although Kurosawa didn’t particularly care for the notion of utter nationalistic obedience, he endeavored to create something of which he was tremendously proud. “The Most Beautiful is not a major motion picture,” he later wrote, “but it is the one dearest to me.”

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