The Most Beautiful (1944)
The Most Beautiful
Commissioned by Toho Studios at a time when Japan’s prospects in the war were less than rosy, Akira Kurosawa’s second film certainly holds interest for his dedicated fans, despite (or because) of the fact that it is indisputably a piece of propaganda—of all his work, this sometimes exhaustingly earnest wartime melodrama may be the hardest for modern audiences to stomach.
The Most Beautiful’s plot is uncomplicated, a little hysterical and with an obvious goal of moralizing the flagging spirits of the Japanese nation during World War II. The title refers not to one who is physically beautiful, but to those who possess the right spirit in fulfilling their duty. The film focuses on the major travails and minor triumphs of a group of young women, seemingly teenagers, working at an optics factory making lenses for the military, desperately trying to achieve a nigh-impossible quota they have set for themselves.
No one is more single-minded in this pursuit than the group leader Tsuru Watanabe, played sincerely and compellingly by Yoko Yaguchi, who after much conflict on set later married Kurosawa. Largely for this reason, Kurosawa has called The Most Beautiful the film dearest to his heart.
The overt militarism of the film is jarring from the first moment, a shrill call to “destroy the enemy” from Chief Goro Ishida, startlingly played by Takashi Shimura (better known for rather gentler roles as the leads in, for example, Seven Samurai and Ikiru). Kurosawa himself has expressed regrets about doing nothing to prevent Japan’s slide into this militarism; yet even a cursory examination of The Most Beautiful shows that its propaganda is far from a straightforward approval of Japan’s actions during the war.
What feels like endless scenes showcasing the work ethic, self-sacrifice and patriotism of the female workers make up the bulk of the work, rendering the film largely a paean to the selfless actions of the girls, who are portrayed as wholly innocent and idealistic. Yet the film might also be read as a sharp criticism of a situation that drove them to the point where their extreme efforts became necessary.
The girls’ selflessness indeed verges on the pathological, making The Most Beautiful often rather uncomfortable to watch: one girl hides her tuberculosis so she can continue working, another rallies after breaking her leg, and in the film’s gut-wrenching climax, Watanabe spends the whole night re-inspecting thousands of lenses—fearing that a flaw has been overlooked—despite having just heard that her mother is terminally ill. The fact that the characters work to make lenses for the military, of all things, is also telling; these lenses are to end up in sights on aircraft, with many shots of the movie depicting the view through these sights. The relationship between Kurosawa’s camera and these militarized lenses is cannily brought to the forefront in this way.
And what camerawork it is! Noted film scholar David Bordwell famously said that The Most Beautiful has “some of the greatest back-to-the-camera scenes in film history.” There is also an enormous variety in pacing and composition, from the manic rapid jump-cuts of extreme close-ups of the girls’ faces during a volleyball game, to beautifully composed, distant shots of groups of them working and talking.
Equally wonderful is the chemistry between the actresses, whom Kurosawa made live together for several weeks in the factory dormitory and call each other only by their characters’ names. Their real-life camaraderie shows through in every scene, anchored around the figure of Watanabe, whose development becomes the emotional centre of the film and who remains arresting even as it starts to feel longer than its 85-minute running time.
Though it doesn’t quite live up to its title when considered within the context of Kurosawa’s oeuvre, The Most Beautiful stands fascinatingly apart from his other films as a work that can be called wartime propaganda yet remain a genuinely artistic consideration of the strength of female bonding and, in particular, the inner life of the monolithic figure of Tsuru Watanabe.