The Most Beautiful (1944)
aka Ichiban utsukushiku
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
85 min.; Japan; Black and White; Mono
Note: This post is part of the Kurosaw-a-Thon hosted at Filmsquish.com.
Akira Kurosawa's second feature film, The Most Beautiful (1944) is a homefront melodrama based on his own screenplay that takes a close look at the personal struggles of a group of female workers relocated to Tokyo to make optical instruments for military aircraft in the latter days of World War II. Think of it as a tragic spin on Rosie the Riveter propaganda Japanese style. At the onset, these dedicated factory women are charged with increasing productivity 50%, and desperate to overcome tedium, illness, injury and separation from home and family they strive to meet this seemingly impossible goal. I decided to look at this early Kurosawa film for the blog-a-thon because it was made during World War II, the years currently under study on this blog.
|A regimented mass of women march off to work to the cadence of their own martial music in The Most Beautiful.|
The central messages of the film are self-sacrifice for the war effort and the development of a steadfast work ethic. To get these ideas across Kurosawa employs repetition. The phrase "work hard" is repeated so often it becomes a mantra for both the characters and the viewer. The same patriotic songs are sung over and over. In ways similar to screen versions of Nazis, the women are shown in regimented crowds, dressing, speaking, acting, marching, and singing as one. The workers lives consist entirely of marching to work while singing, laboring all day, marching home while singing, and receiving indoctrination by rote.
Most of the screentime is spent revealing how worker illness and injury effect productivity, and the steps that must be taken to overcome these things. One might expect the male foremen to drive the women to meet their quotas whatever the cost. But, in this film the women are their own taskmasters, and even in defeat they bear an incredible responsibility. For instance, when one of the women is too sick to work and sent home she's overcome by the shame of letting herself, her fellow workers, her family and her country down. The women are represented by Tsuru (the English subtitles name her Tao) (Yôko Yaguchi), a driven worker, natural leader and staunchly patriotic figure. However, like the character Vakulinchuk in Battleship Potemkin (1925) Tsuru is really a symbol for the group; the ideal worker selflessly sacrificing all in her devotion to duty.
Kurosawa takes pains to show us that though the women are away from home and family they still value traditional ways of life and revere their ancestors. The women kneel and pray before shrines built to lost loved ones, talk about their homes and pine to return. We also see the instruction they receive each night when they return to their barracks-like group home. A mother-teacher surrogate instructs them, and as one they vow loyalty and obedience, and pledge to "fight the British and Americans" and to someday teach their children to do the same.
Romantic and sexual relationships are conspicuously absent from the film. The very few men on hand simply give orders and check the women's progress. The women enjoy some fellowship, commiserate with each other, or have an occasional argument, but any deeper feelings are redirected at their productivity or memories of their families. I assume that some of the women are married to soldiers fighting in the war, but unfortunately the film lacks any real exploration of such relationships as well.
|Tsuru (Yôko Yaguchi) refuses to leave her work even though tragedy has befallen her family.|
Kurosawa's ability to break up the frame with light and blocking is on view (photo left), but the overall presentation is not particularly outstanding and the structure is built on familiar montage techniques. However, there are a couple of elements worthy of note. For instance, the narrative is driven by a recurring simple animation that charts the workers' productivity across time. Every time one of the women gets sick, injured or distracted the productivity line drops. When the women overcome these infirmities the productivity line increases. It's an obvious device to push the narrative, but it's effective. In addition, when we see the workers look through one of their optical instruments Kurosawa allows us to peer through it as well so we have an understanding of what sort of devices are being produced. Finally, we're most aware of a creative hand at work behind the camera during long lateral tracking shots and other camera moves that involve the large cast in a parade of reaction shots. Combined with the sentimental story these shots are reminiscent of the 1930s work of Frank Capra. In fact, though Kurosawa's style on such films as The Seven Samurai (1954) and The Hidden Fortress (1958) earn the director comparisons with John Ford, the look, pacing and personal drama preoccupation of The Most Beautiful leads one to imagine Capra producing something like it had he made propaganda films for the enemy instead of the U.S. government during the war.
The stand-out sequence of The Most Beautiful sees Tsuru labor through the night to hand craft a damaged mirror to be used in an aircraft gunsight. The work is difficult and tedious, but she sings the same patriotic song used throughout the film to keep herself awake and on task. The acting in this scene is understated yet gripping, and I caught myself trying to sing along to spur her on. In the end, Tsuru's devotion to duty earns her an uncommon level of respect from her superiors, and we're compelled to feel the same way about her character. Unfortunately, the film ends soon after this compelling sequence and as a result feels unfinished. However, Kurosawa's drama provides us with a history of the kinds of sacrifices made by Japanese women working for the war effort in the days when the tide of war had shifted against Japan, and by extension all people working to produce the necessary tools to fight that terrible conflict. Through The Most Beautiful we can grasp the sacrifice, desperation and drive with which those on the homefront, any homefront, serve their country in its time of need.
One last note: The Most Beautiful DVD from MEI AH Entertainment suffers from strange ghosting most obvious when actors move quickly (which isn't a problem for most of this quiet film), and the English subtitles make almost no sense at all; around halfway through I turned them off and let the acting and inflections of the spoken parts tell the story.