Jason Julier looks again the work of Akira Kurosawa, this week taking in the director’s sophomore effort, The Most Beautiful.
After making his impressive directorial debut with the combative, much delayed and censored Sanshiro Sugata; Akira Kurosawa’s next films would be influenced by the impending climax of World War 2. While the sequel to Sanshiro Sugata released in 1945 can be viewed as a disappointment being heavily fuelled by propaganda, Ichiban utsukushiku or The Most Beautiful released in 1944, is by comparison a more personal, introspective and successful film. Eastern Premise would go so far to actually include it in our top 5 favourite works from Kurosawa yet this period of his career is often overlooked or diminished due to the interference of the war.
Eastern Premise has read a few summaries of Kurosawa’s filmography and career over the years and noticed that some seem to commence in the 1950’s. While this decade is when he did come to forefront of public opinion and technical expertise, to write off his war period is an error. Kurosawa like several of his contemporaries began his career as an assistant director to such names as Kajiro Yamamoto and Mikio Naruse. In fact it was Yamamoto who spotted Kurosawa’s early promise and the rest is as they say is history.
The war played an important part in Kurosawa’s development as the normally slow progression to that of director within the studio system was unsustainable. Resources in front of the camera and behind were stretched and limited. Japanese film production throughout the course of the war had suffered a dramatic decline and what films were released had to meet certain criteria. This also meant making the most of what talent and skill remained amongst the studios to maintain some essence of output and support the war effort. Assistants who might have wanted longer in the 1930’s were suddenly given a chance to direct and spared the risks associated with military service. Arguably it was this early baptism that would help sow the seeds for the rich and prosperous film period that would follow in the 1950’s.
Of course such a wonderful opportunity does not come without its own drawbacks. For Kurosawa and anyone involved in making films during this period it is worth highlighting the restrictions any film would come under. For instance scripts were vetted by the military authorities before filming commenced and it was anticipated that films would contain messages of support for the war and to boost morale of the population. The film studios were reorganised and a new era of censorship arrived and Kurosawa like any filmmaker would be subject to its rules. Apparently the seeds for The Most Beautiful were first sown by a military request for a film about fighter planes and the sacrifices of their heroic pilots. The project never reached fruition but was cultivated in another form as Kurosawa considered how these machines and other weapons were created.
The Most Beautiful possesses a documentary feel partially assisted by the fact it was set and released in real time. Just as the onscreen war machine and its ramifications are felt by the cast, crew and director, the public watching the film would have identified with many of the themes, situations and characteristics on display in their own lives. A strong propaganda current runs throughout the film and at its most visible are marching songs, which are unsettling as the band of women gladly sing songs about China whilst trying to strike up a tune. Also apparent is a work ethic that heralds back to Socialism and the overriding need to triumph over increasing adversity and outrageous odds. Setting the barometer is the factory output graph that forms the main focus of all involved; the need to be productive and show everyone how determined a Japanese female worker can be is clear.
The Most Beautiful focuses on a band of young women who are recruited to work in an optical lens manufacturing plant mainly concerned with the creation of bombing and targeting sights. Part of the film’s unique feel and substance is that Kurosawa insisted that filming actually took place within such a facility and during the film we come to understand the effort and human sacrifice that goes into making such a complicated and refined piece of kit.
The band of women form close bonds as they are housed within a dormitory and encouraged to partake in activities as a unit outside of work such as marching, singing, mastering an instrument and playing sports. Encouraging this bond was the use of an industrial environment and that the actresses refer to one another by their script name, eat the factory food and live in the dormitory. This immersion into the war machine is ultimately successful as the women do look weary and devoid of any glamour. Despite the disputes they remain enthusiastic and motivated to perform when the script demands.
The central role of the factory is female leader, Watanabe, played by Yoko Yaguchi who is wonderful and comes across as a strong willed, patriotic, dynamic and caring character. She can call upon that heroic quality that would become a staple of Kurosawa’s samurai characters in the following decade. Yet she never has to pick up a weapon or lose her temper. She has the trust and support of her female workers despite increasing productivity demands from the military. Yaguchi also represented the cast in real life and passed on the demands and complaints of the cast to Kurosawa. It was through these clashes that a respect developed which soon turned to love and thereafter marriage. For Yaguchi it would spell the end of her acting career and we can only presume what may have been with such a strong and emotional performance.
The semi-documentary feel to The Most Beautiful is extremely rewarding, but Kurosawa also engages the viewer with dynamic editing and extremely personal moments that do not rely on bravado or patriotism. By making use of a factory, the clatter of machinery and the strong wills of its workers, they combine to propel us towards a touching climax. It is clearly the strongest of Kurosawa’s wartime films and as its forms the meat in the Sanshiro Sugata sandwich, it still remains somewhat overlooked.
The film has been released by Criterion as part of its Eclipse series focusing on Kurosawa’s early films or the BFI’s Early Kurosawa – Collection DVD box set.