Following the two Sanshiro Sugata films that we had last month, our Film Club now moves to discuss The Most Beautiful. However, before my introduction (which is largely copy-pasted from my June introduction for the movie), let me ask a question which I asked a few weeks ago, but which generated only one response: is the pace of the film club too fast for you, and should we rather have a new title once a month like we used to, and not two titles a month as we do now?
And now, back to our programming. After his debut work Sanshiro Sugata, the 33-year-old Kurosawa was asked to direct a wartime propaganda film about Japanese fighter planes. This film never materialised, however, and Kurosawa’s propaganda film ended up taking an entirely different direction: The Most Beautiful depicts the wartime efforts of female factory workers. That Kurosawa got to direct anything at all could perhaps be considered a sign of the young director’s place in the Japanese film industry at the time: the film was made at a time when supplies were low and film production had come down from 232 films a year in 1941, to just 46 works in 1944. (Galbraith 46) Granted, the director had also been relieved from all army duty, and unlike other directors like Yasujiro Ozu, was not serving overseas.
The Most Beautiful is an anecdotal, episodic, documentary-like film. It is usually considered a minor work for Kurosawa, with critics generally concentrating on two main aspects: its documentary style, and its status as a propaganda film.
Regarding the film’s documentary style, Kurosawa wrote in his autobiography that “[w]hen I received this project to direct, I decided I wanted to try doing it in semi-documentary style. I began with the task of ridding the young actresses of everything they had physically and emotionally acquired that smacked of theatricality. The odor of makeup, the snobbery, the affectations of the stage, that special self-consciousness that only actors have — all of this had to go. I wanted to return them to their original status of ordinary young girls.” (Kurosawa, 132) Watching the film now, sixty years after its release, do you think that the performances mirror Kurosawa’s goals with his actresses?
The film was shot on location in a real factory, in which the actors and crew also lived, marking the first time Kurosawa took such a devoted approach to film making in order to secure realistic performances. (Galbraith 47) The result was so convincing that from the major commentators, Richie in fact approaches the film not so much as a work of fiction shot in a documentary style, but rather almost as a documentary that simply uses actors and the techniques of narrative film making. (26)
Prince notes that Kurosawa’s documentary-like approach does not only result in naturalistic acting, but that it also permeates the camera work which “is largely stationary and avoids extreme angles, and the editing lacks the shocking shifts of perspective and abrupt shot transitions that typified Sanshiro Sugata. Nevertheless, several sequences do clearly exhibit the marks of Kurosawa’s style”. (55) Meanwhile, Galbraith sees Kurosawa’s direction in The Most Beautiful as “energetic and consistently innovative”, comparing his editing in the film to Leni Riefenstahl, his compositions to Russian propaganda films, and noting that in The Most Beautiful, like many times later in his career, Kurosawa would often emphasize in story what he would not actually show on the screen, or would show only much later. (48-49) Also Richie sees many parallels to Kurosawa’s later works, particularly Ikiru, in both theme and technique. (27) Which films does The Most Beautiful remind you?
The film’s status as a direct propaganda work has received much attention. Both Sorensen (189) and Yoshimoto (88) ponder what exactly Kurosawa (135) meant by calling the film “the one dearest” to him. Yoshimoto suggests that while much may have had to do with the fact that Kurosawa became romantically involved and ended up marrying Yoko Yaguchi, one of the film’s actresses, “it is at least equally important to note that some of the narrative motifs in this wartime film reappear in his postwar films as vehicles for the assertion of what are often regarded as humanistic ideals. There is a strong sense of continuity between Kurosawa’s wartime and postwar films, and this continuity problematizes any facile differentiation of so-called postwar humanism and the wartime militarism of his films.” (88) Prince similarly reminds us that The Most Beautiful is not very different from Kurosawa’s later films: “Like all Kurosawa’s films, this one is centered around a scenario of service and austere self-discipline, but it shows how these codes may produce individuals in submission to nation and emperor as easily as, in other films, they produce characters in postures of heroic or social rebellion. It should not surprise us that Kurosawa, normally so socially critical an artist, should have produced so effective a wartime propaganda film.” (55)
Galbraith, however, points out something that he sees as diverging from the rest of Kurosawa’s works: “The Most Beautiful is alone among Kurosawa’s films in that he has unreserved faith in the group. From here on, he reserved his faith for a belief in individuals like Tsuru.” (48) Would you agree?
Ultimately, The Most Beautiful has received somewhat less attention than Kurosawa’s debut work, or the works that would soon follow. Yet, considering that Kurosawa has often been criticised for the lack of leading, or at least positive female characters in his films, it is perhaps somewhat surprising that this aspect of The Most Beautiful, a film centring around a group of women, has been left largely untouched by the main film critics writing on Kurosawa.
Finally, let me remind you that we also have Kenji Mizoguchi’s The 47 Ronin, another wartime propaganda film, selected for discussion. Unless we choose to change our pacing, in October 15 that film will be replaced by two shorter films by Hiroshi Shimizu: Japanese Girls at the Harbor and Mr. Thank You. Both of these, as well as two other films that we will be watching in November, are available in Criterion’s region 1 (North America) box set. For more information, check out Kurosawa DVDs.
The forums, as always, are open for your comments, insights, and questions. Join the discussion!
26 June 2011
Finally watched The Most Beautiful and agree with commenters in other threads that it’s a fairly straightforward movie both in terms of content and style. The rah-rah militaristic aspects of it made me cringe a bit — that kind of cheerleading tends to make me break out in hives, and Takeshi Shimura’s initial speech over the loudspeaker reminded me enough in tone and delivery of Hitler’s propaganda speeches to be eerie. It didn’t work for me as a female-oriented narrative the way No Regrets For Our Youth and One Wonderful Sunday does. Other than their desire to be given more responsibility and more closely match the increased quota the men were given, most of the things that drove them to achieve didn’t resonate with me.
That said, it wasn’t as though the movie left me entirely cold. The vegetable garden with soil from all their hometowns. The girl whose mother was deceased (I presume) and thus didn’t have a photograph to remember her by. (I’m not sure which girl this was, either.) The good-bye they gave Suzumura, and giving her the flute she played, was very moving, as was the relationship they had with their house mother. Watanabe’s keeping Yamaguchi’s secret regarding her health and later being accused of favoritism for it. The quarrel between the two girls that breaks Watanabe’s concentration.The managers keeping watch over Watanabe as she scoured the factory for the missing lens.
Watanabe’s parents’ attitude and her refusal to leave for her mother’s funeral reminded me of my father’s family deciding not to tell him that his mother had died while he was stationed in Europe at the end of WWII — even though he most likely would have been allowed to travel home for the funeral –and my aunt refusing to tell her son, who was studying for an exam he needed to pass to be licensed as a psychologist in the state of California, that another aunt had died until the exam was over. And since those involved are all 100% Korean, this practice, as odd as it may seem to Westerners, is seemingly well-entrenched among East Asians, not just Japanese.