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Film Club: The Most Beautiful begins our ‘Film as Propaganda’ series

The Most Beautiful
After spending the last half a year looking at Rashomon and its various permutations, the Akira Kurosawa Film Club now leaves behind that web of lies and self-deception and moves onto a totally different web of lies and deception. Propaganda films.

The difference is not huge. The characters in Rashomon shape their narratives in ways which promote a specific interpretation of reality in order to influence other characters. Propaganda films do the same, only with us viewers as the target of their reality bending exercise.

We will start our year-long journey into propaganda by discussing Kurosawa’s second directorial work The Most Beautiful (1944), made at a time when Japanese film production was both limited and strongly shaped by wartime conditions. Together with Kurosawa’s next film Sanshiro Sugata Part II, which we will be watching later this year, The Most Beautiful is a prime example of Kurosawa having to work within those conditions without necessarily sharing the ideology behind them.

The Most Beautiful is a documentary style look at a group of female factory workers labouring to increase production for the service of Japan’s war effort. Kurosawa went to great lengths to inject realism into the film, and the end result shows it. You can find more information on the (still somewhat unfinished) filmography page on The Most Beautiful, while the Kurosawa biography pages will give you a biographical context. For the film’s availability, check out the DVD page.

In his autobiography written in the early 1980s, Kurosawa called The Most Beautiful the film most dearest to him. This has puzzled many commentators, some suggesting that Kurosawa may not have been quite as opposed to the wartime regime as he has typically suggested. Others have pointed out that the remark must rather come from a deeply personal connection that the director had with the film: he ended up marrying one of the actresses and spending the rest of his life with her.

We have discussed The Most Beautiful a few times before. For previous discussion, see here and here, as well as here for the forums.

After The Most Beautiful, we will be continuing with some of the most awe-inspiring, beautiful, vicious and damaging propaganda films ever put on celluloid. For more information about the film club, including a full schedule, head over to the film club page.





Watched the BFI version of this last night , (I’ve watched the film a few times in the past too ) ,
I noticed a lot of emphasis placed on the Fife and Drum marching music with the girls practising etc.
This seemed to me a very western style of music and not Japanese at all, so I wondered what the connection was as obviously this film pre-dates American occupation. The other main musical theme was clearly a more traditional Japanese folk song about the defeat of the Mongol Hoards, presumably the “Divine Wind” sinking ships in the 11th century.
It seemed to me the western fife and drum music was at odds with this , however with a little internet searching I found this article which explains a long history of the Japanese researching and adopting western military music ending up with a tradition of Fife and Drum bands.
Western Military Drums in Japan article.


Vili Maunula

Thanks Longstone, that’s an interesting link! It’s surprising that this type of music, along with western clothing and things like baseball, goes all the way back to the latter half of the 19th century in Japan. One would think of them more as early 20th century introductions.

I too watched the film and tried to pay particular attention to its handling of propaganda. I think it’s possible to identify two levels of propaganda in The Most Beautiful, which I would call “Kurosawa’s propaganda” and “national propaganda”.

“Kurosawa’s propaganda” is what forms the overall story, which really wouldn’t be out of place even in a postwar Kurosawa film. Like so often with him, the underlying thesis is explicitly given very early on in the film, during the opening speech of the factory director: “One can’t improve productivity without improving one’s character”. This notion pretty much runs through the whole of Kurosawa’s postwar work, just with “productivity” getting different interpretations from Drunken Angel to Stray Dog, and The Quiet Duel to Ikiru. This aspect of the film’s propaganda seems to come authentically from Kurosawa. Obviously it also aligns perfectly with the message that those in charge of wartime propaganda wanted to put out there.

The film is also filled with more blatant national propaganda. These seem to be handled very differently from the film’s core message, being predominantly positioned outside of the core narrative. It appears in the form of banners, songs and slogans, all of which remain in the fringes of the story and its characters. The banners are backdrops that are never discussed, while the song performances are far from passionate, but rather functional in nature: the band practice is a mere diversion for the girls, the caretaker sings propaganda tunes to pass his time while cleaning, and Watanabe uses a song to keep herself awake while trying to find her misplaced lens. What Kurosawa thought of the messages contained in these banners and songs is difficult to say, but at least they are presented in an interestingly peripheral, albeit ubiquitous manner. This doesn’t mean that the propaganda isn’t effective. Quite the contrary, both the songs and the banner slogans have become everyday parts of people’s lives. It has become normal to talk about giving your everything to kill the (largely abstract) enemy, or to entertain yourself singing songs with the same message.

Like in many of his early films, Kurosawa uses relatively much text in The Most Beautiful to further the story, and I think he does it really well here. There is a particularly great sequence that takes the story forward four months in the space of a few seconds, while also establishing a major dramatic turn. This is done simply by showing the words “Makin”, “Tarawa”, “Kwajalein” and “Roi-Namur” on screen, and inserting very brief reaction shots in between. For a modern western viewer it may be difficult to understand the meaning of this sequence at least without doing some background research, as we don’t have the context that contemporary audiences did. But basically, the words refer to battles which Japan lost during late 1943 and early 1944. The last two actually happened during the production of The Most Beautiful, making the film very contemporary indeed for its initial audiences.

Another device that I would call textual is the use of a line graph to communicate production levels. Again, the film accomplishes much by showing very little.

Those are pretty much the notes that I made while watching the film this time around.

With the addition of this final one: let’s go back to the film’s first volleyball scene when we watch Riefenstahl’s Olympia. Kurosawa must have seen the German film, and I’m curious if he took anything from it for this section. It’s been years since I last saw the Riefenstahl film, but something about Kurosawa’s cutting there made me think of Olympia. I could be mistaken, though.



I watched the film again and made a few random notes/observations:

The factory Kurosawa used for the location filming was a lens factory , I was wondering if being a film maker influence this choice? It was the company that eventually became Nikkor ( Nikon ) making binoculars and some photographic lenses before the war and high powered mapping lenses to be used from planes during the war.
There is some historical information here
and a little more information here

Returning to the use of music in the film, in his autobiography Kurosawa mentions he used an American composed March for background music ( a march by Sousa ) and suggests he was surprised the censors let that pass, I need to check again if the music being played by the Fife and Drum band was the same march ? Perhaps the drum marching by the girls seemed less passionate because they were concentrating on playing? Given Kurosawa made the actresses participate in the lessons they may have had to learn quickly.

Regarding the documentary feel of the film , one online article pointed out the film has no credits , so neither Kurosawa or any of the actresses or actors are mentioned at the start or end of the film.
Is this the norm for Japanese propaganda films from that time ? It may have added to the documentary feel or supposed realism for the intended audience, perhaps they might have been intended to think it was a documentary to increase the propaganda effect.

There is a prolonged scene where a Father comes to remove his sick daughter from the factory , I wondered why this was not thought unpatriotic by the censors ?
There was apparently some controversy in Kinoshita’s “Army” (which is due to come up later in the film club) because a Mother showed emotion when her son was sent off to war. It was weak to not be happy for your child to be participating in the war effort ?

Also I thought the male supervisors at the factory were depicted as being over the top in their kindness toward the girls , never seeming to get angry with them for any reason ,in fact seeming extremely laid back a lot of the time. This felt unrealistic to me but where Peter B High covers the film in his book “The Imperial Screen” , he mentions that at the start of the war Japanese women were not encouraged to work , it was only in desperation in 1943/44 that there was a change in directive. This short article explains a little more ,


suggesting Kurosawa was in at the start of this process with his propaganda film , assuming he started filming in 1943 , so if the film was to encourage girls to volunteer for factory work then the supervisors being exceptionally nice and the girls being encouraged in sport and music would all help to persuade parents to let them leave home.

A couple of other scenes that struck me as interesting or dramatic were : the lost lens story being illustrated by using flash backs and the montage of girls faces in close up during one of the volleyball matches.




so if the film was to encourage girls to volunteer for factory work then the supervisors being exceptionally nice and the girls being encouraged in sport and music would all help to persuade parents to let them leave home.

I’m a little curious about this angle as so far as I am aware women were very much part of working life during the war, if not actually in heavy industry. For example, the Fusan Bakudan (fire balloon) programme was almost entirely run with female labour.

I think the situation may have been more subtle in that poorer women always worked hard in textile factories and in rural areas before the war, but the propaganda behind the movie was aimed at what might be termed ‘respectable’ women and girls who would previously not have been expected to work, except perhaps in something specialist like nursing. So the reassurance that the young women would be treated respectfully was required because it was assumed they were not from the traditional labouring classes.



Ugetsu I’m sure your correct , the situation must be more complex , I just remembered Ozu’s film “The Only Son” released in 1936 and with the start of the film being set in the 1920s . The Mother in the film works in a silk factory and by the end of the film is living in the factory dormitory having presumably sold her house to fund her son’s education.
There are a couple of other articles I found that suggest there wasn’t a drive to get women to work in factories until late in the war . It seems there was a shift in the type of work and industry they wanted women to work in and a change to encourage younger women and girls to work plus married women were also encouraged to work . The articles suggest the government were publicly pushing these policies only in 1943/44 given Japan had been at war since 1937 .

So the reassurance that the young women would be treated respectfully was required because it was assumed they were not from the traditional labouring classes.

this seems a good explanation Ugetsu.


Laird Wilcox

The upcoming propaganda film, Momotaro’s Devine Sea Warriors is incorrectly listed as Devide, not Devine. This is obviously a typo or some sort. Regarding the film, I have watched it several times. It’s entirely unlike Western cartoons. I hope everyone get’s a chance to see it. I bought mine online along with a couple of DVDs of American war cartoons. They were, as you suggested, viciously anti-Japanese.


Vili Maunula

Laird Wilcox: The upcoming propaganda film, Momotaro’s Devine Sea Warriors is incorrectly listed as Devide, not Devine.

Thanks for spotting the typo! It should be “divine”. Not sure what happened there. Fixed now.

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