Akria Kurosawa: The Most Beautiful (1944) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Akria Kurosawa: The Most Beautiful (1944)

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I don't like crippling fear of a director's early films to go to waste, so there was a bit of schadenfreude at myself for liking Sanshiro Sugata so much last week.  Twisty emotions aside, I should have stockpiled that suspicion instead of deeming it completely unnecessary.  Because now we have both seen The Most Beautiful and my fear of a dull and creatively uninteresting feature came a week late.  Now instead of rapt anticipation, I will approach each of the remaining films of Akira Kurosawa's career with dread.

Overdoing it a bit, but it's almost a reflex to the perplexing lack of wartime urgency during the film.  It was made long after the United States had entered the Pacific and made clear they were not going to be resting until Japan's shoreline was theirs.  Since we all have the hindsight of history this obviously turned out to be true.  But even for the Japanese fighting in 1944 it was definitely plausible.

Given the enemy was pretty much right outside their doors the workers and supervisors of The Most Beautiful seem to live in a land plagued by the idea of an enemy instead of one that is an island over.  Kurosawa took a lot of steps to try and make sure there was easy familiarity between all of the cast members to forge as documentary-like an approach as possible.  The ladies of the factory lived together, sometimes worked in the same space for practice, called each other by their character names, and basically tried to forget all about the outside world and focus instead on the fiction of the factory.

It's part of this completely disavowment of the outside world which makes the film so static.  Instead of a lived-in feel the movie instead gives the impression we're watching an entire season of television in one sitting.  Or, if you want to use the media of the time, that each plot point in the film is like it's own propaganda film haphazardly spliced together to give the impression of momentum.

"Today in Big Tops and Bombshells, Sachiko develops a cough, will she hide in shame or whoop on home?"  Cue commercial, or in this case a quick pan over some machines, and we're on to the conclusion.  The next plot point takes over, we're onto another one of the workers, and the previous issues are completely forgotten for another half hour or so until some, but not all, of the plot points get dragged out for some kind of conclusion.

I have no entry point into this world.  This was made by a Japanese director during a time of such strict nationalism that he was told to make a propaganda film next and that's that.  But this isn't the first time I've been told to accept a foreign world I have no obvious connection to, especially given my love of the nearly alien landscapes of Bela Tarr.  There's also a long precedent of propaganda films at least being visually stunning like with Triumph of the Will.

Too much of a culture clash by a disaffected director or is my tightly pent dread creeping in too suddenly to an innocuously enjoyable film?

Just innocuously enjoyable? I respectfully disagree, and I for one want to say thank you. Thank you Akira Kurosawa. I never knew hard work and persistence could be so fun and fulfilling until the end credits of The Most Beautiful rolled. “I finished it,” I thought, “I made it through the whole thing.” Then I got up and didn’t think about it for another 4 hours. I actually had to remind myself to sit down and write this review.

Your comparison to a TV show is spot on. The movie serves—understandably, as it is propaganda—to regurgitate the same message through vaguely varying and predictable situations in the primitive hope that its audience will simply get on board if they’re told something enough times in a row. That message? “Work hard, because the good of the country is more important than individual concerns.” Oh WWII Japan, you threw me a curve-ball on that one.

That the film is centered on a group of women working in an optics factory could provide occasion to reflect on the varying social roles expected of people during war, the difference in the severity of sacrifice expected, how all of this affects one’s perception of self in such circumstances, etc. There are plenty of ways Kurosawa could have made a propaganda film with the same general message while still at least touching on some interesting questions. Instead, this is accomplished through scenes the only purpose of which is to show how hard the women are working and to make sure you understand that they’re loving every minute of it. The dorm mother smiles as one of the girls talks about work in her sleep; they march laughing and singing through the streets; they ask for even more work than they’ve already been given; they play volleyball while extolling the virtues of doing your part for the team. There’s also a lot of laughing during these games. Who knew there was so much laughing during wartime?

The only interest the movie serves for me is as an early display of Kurosawa’s obsession with demonstrating character relationships through physical arrangement onscreen.  The film has countless scenes of individuals arranged dramatically against a larger group, which usually ends in the group reconnecting with them and visually assimilating them, like the Borg. This leads to several unintentionally horrifying scenes, like when the marching workers surround a poor woman in a kimono and sing at her about the Mongols; or like when they appear to be playing a version of hide and seek in which one person hides and 75 others seek in a stampeding herd. This latter scene ends with the women smiling and laughing in an indistinguishable group. It serves to sum up much of the film’s philosophy: their joy comes from reconnecting with the individual they were searching for, which mirrors their joy at having a group role/identity in the factory, before somebody makes it weird by yelling “Where is the thermometer?”

There are images like this throughout—the group surrounding an injured worker in a hospital bed; a worker cut off from the group by trains separating two sides of the street. Some of these are interesting solely in how effective they can be to demonstrate such relationships. These images are as obvious as they can possibly get, but Kurosawa manages to squeeze some minor impact out of them.

This is faint praise, which is the appropriate kind of praise for The Most Beautiful, but there is one scene that I thought was truly interesting in its own right. Toward the end, there is a scene of conflict between a rebellious worker and the leader of the group. The women have been overworked for too long, and they are beginning to make mistakes and turn on one another. As one worker voices dissent, she is placed standing at one end of the screen, with the leader of the women seated on the other end. The workers all sit between them, shifting dramatically back and forth as each talks while they follow the argument.

Again, the visual strategy is obvious—and seems more suited to a play or another medium with a static point of view—but the exaggerated back-and-forth of the workers effectively demonstrates their utter desperation to maintain group cohesion. One of them pleads with the leader several times to answer to the charges of the angry worker, and we get the feeling that it’s not so much the answer that matters as it is that she simply resolve the dispute so they can all be happy and laugh and play volleyball together again. It’s a scene of almost pitiful desperation, and it’s here that I most wish Kurosawa could have broken away from the propaganda format, delving into how a disintegration of the group dynamic triggers a disintegration of their own lives. Unfortunately, that doesn’t encourage people to continue sacrificing for a war that is so obviously and imminently at its end, so this dispute is solved rather sloppily to make way for the real climax, which, despite some promising talk of mythical, lute-playing “raccoon dogs” late in the movie, instead involves a missing lens and more singing about the Mongols.

The amount of laughter in this film perturbed me.  I’m glad that you picked up on that because I’m going to borrow your David Lynch comparison from last week and rub it all over this film.  There was so much laughter at moments it felt like it could have played like a parody of the propaganda film it ended up being.

Finish this lens or our glorious men cannot kill the enemy *tee hee*.  I may have cholera *tee hee*.  The enemy is outside our doorstep and instead we need to break for volleyball years before Top Gun beats us to the punch *guffaw*.  I’m trying to picture how this attitude could have possibly existed at this stage in Japan’s fight against the United States and coming up with a craterous blank where Hiroshima used to be while the irradiated dead and remaining wounded lurch toward the factory in trains of despair.

I bet that would leave the audience in a joyful uproar in the hypothetical comedy club of The Most Beautiful.

You noted a mark of defiance as the only notable visual of the film, and I must admit that one soared right over me next to all the happy volleyball.  But one of the last shots of the film is sure to be the only thing I’ll remember about the movie.  One of the workers, struggling to finish the broken lens that she found, falls asleep briefly against the calibration machines.  They dwarf her tremendously, she the only one who refuses to rest and goes until her body can’t take it anymore.  Then against the mammoth machines she sleep and dreams of a glorious Japan, where her efforts have contributed to their victory.  It’s a very short moment, but points toward an interesting undercurrent in the film.

The factory defiance and brief dream are both sequences that inform us visually what Kurosawa and most of Japan must have felt at this point in the war.  Things were not going well, but because the artistic restrictions were still in play Kurosawa was forced to make a propaganda film with what resources he had.  Amidst all the forced happiness brought on by the censorship these two scenes show a Japan finally at wit’s end, and a Japan who is only able to achieve victory in their dreams.  There are no reports in the film about how well certain battles are going or how their materials are actually helping the war effort.  There is only the job, the promise of the next day’s job, and these two scenes which point toward a sad exhaustion felt by all.

Basically, given the cultural and historical differences between the Japan of then and our America, I don’t think it was possible for Kurosawa to make the kind of film either of us would want to see.  It doesn’t change the overall lackluster nature of the end product, but for a proud people who wanted to see themselves the victor it’s a wonderfully pathetic movie.  The movie doesn’t exist as much more than a testament to its own presence in our history, and nothing else.  Only those two scenes will stay in either of our minds, and we both had to remind the other our choice even existed.

The way history played out with this film will be more fun to revisit than the movie itself.  I like that the women get center stage, but the only reason we’re able to glimpse into their lives (no matter how shallow it may be) is because Kurosawa could not make the film he wanted to about Japanese fighter pilots.  We may have seen some of the women making parts for the planes of that film but that’s about it.   Instead we see how the universe of The Most Beautiful equates, at best, women to being the rough worth of 2/3 of a man in the same position.  On the other end of the world, Rosie the Riveter was telling women “We Can Do It!” instead of breaking down and crying at how more was not expected of them.

As dull a film it is, it almost seems disrespectful to Kurosawa and the condition of his cast and crew to wish for a different film.  We have the cynical hindsight of history but here he was, a man who hated the war, trying to put a brave face on everything and struggle to make it through to the next film.  It’s the perfect example of the Marxist question that plagues some art, the problematic, that asks the questions that aren’t readily apparent.

Where is the sadness?  Why don’t the women ever receive any bad news about their loved ones?  Why do they not get any news updates?  Where do they find all of this energy?  Then there’s our favorite question, why are they laughing so much?  There are glimpses, but we’re still not there.  There’s real sadness to come, but not in this package.

Anything else we should giggle about before packing up the plant and revisiting our old friend Sanshiro next week?

It’s interesting that the shot you mention at the end of the worker alone in the huge factory trying to find the missing lens is also the only notable one that emphasizes an individual over the group. While this is intercut with scenes of her fellow workers praying in mass in the garden, her superiors waiting for her outside, etc., the struggle is always chiefly her own. This is in stark contrast to many of the other scenes leading up to this, in which the women are exhausted, angry, sad, hysterically giggling for no discernible reason, etc. always in a large group. While thematically there is no mistaking that her struggle represents something greater for all of the characters, its immediate impact is shifted to an individual level.

It’s the first and really only time in the movie the audience is asked to identify with and invest in a single character. That this is also the only time dreams of victory are indulged is interesting, as it can almost be read that a personal victory for the greater good is more important than this greater good actually being achieved. Perhaps this was Kurosawa’s way of maintaining the blissfully and deliberately ignorant view of the war that propaganda required while still consoling those in his audience who were sacrificing in vein. It’s as if he’s saying “you did what you could, you sacrificed what you had to, and even though we all know we’re not going to win the war, your efforts are the important thing.”

The film is essentially a participant medal.  It would be interesting to compare this sentiment with some more contemporary films that look back at the war during its last year(s). I’m always struck by the anger in Grave of the Fireflies at a government that continued a war effort that was demoralizing and impoverishing its people in the face of what was by then absolute and certain defeat. No doubt Kurosawa felt this way, but was bound by the restrictions of the time.

Aside from its status as a historical relic and a representation of a tragically stubborn wartime government, there’s still not a lot of interest here. The characters are determined to do their part because that’s what a good member of society does; though there’s not much conflict or unrest, the nail that sticks out always gets hammered down; and Japanese women tend to giggle furiously in groups — viewed from the distance of 68 years and another continent, The Most Beautiful is essentially a movie about a stereotype factory. What’s interesting I suppose, then, is how gleefully it embraces these stereotypes, and how Kurosawa later in his career manages to evoke well-established archetypes and then turn them on their head. I like the second approach better.

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Next week: An aged grappler gets a second chance at stealing that kiss!

Posted by Andrew

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