Monday, January 9, 2012

REVIEW: The Most Beautiful

一番美しく (Ichiban utsukushiku)

Released: 1944

Akira Kurosawa

Takashi Shimura
Soji Kiyokawa
Ichiro Sugai
Takako Irie
Yoko Yaguchi

Running time: 85 min.

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

The second film Akira Kurosawa made in his long and eventful career was very much molded by forces beyond his personal ambitions in filmmaking. "The Most Beautiful" is essentially a World War II propaganda piece specifically designed to promote the strength of the Japanese nation and its dutiful citizens. By the time Kurosawa became attached to the project in 1943, Japan’s prospects in the war were becoming increasingly bleak, which likely explains the film’s morale-boosting themes and focus on factory workers’ courageous efforts rather than actual accomplishments in the battlefield or direct claims of military might. "The Most Beautiful" remains very much fixed on the human spirit and the value of working for a cause, making it a true Kurosawa film at its core despite its other ideological objectives.

The story takes place at a factory in Hiratsuke that manufactures precision lenses for binoculars, weapons and other war tools. Its chief, Goro Ishida (a very young Takashi Shimura) announces the start of a four-month period in which the production quotas for all workers will be at an increased level: 100% more for the men while only 50% more for the women. The female workers voice their discontentment with this arrangement, fiercely arguing that they can manage more responsibility. As they struggle to increase their productivity, they face various challenges. One woman, Suzumura (Asako Suzuki), becomes ill and is taken home against her wishes by her worrisome family while another, Yamaguchi (Shizuko Yamada), runs a fever each night but tries to keep it a secret so as to keep working at the factory. But out of all of them, the one who suffers the most is the group president, Tsuru Watanabe (Yoko Yaguchi, Kurosawa’s future wife). As she battles exhaustion and receives troubling news from abroad about her ailing mother, she pushes onwards with her work.

"The Most Beautiful" is a striking example of how films can be both shaped and altered by different historical contexts. When it was made, it was a clear call to action and duty for a nation locked in war. But one painful loss, an American occupation and several decades’ worth of events later, it is a fascinating time capsule of the Japan that once was. Beyond the obvious spectacle of the amassed workers lined up before their machines and practicing their march routines in formation, there are telling details that clearly show the omnipresent attention to the war effort. Everywhere throughout the factory can be seen banners and signs displaying such messages as “This too is a battlefield!” and orders to follow the examples of certain military units and the war dead. Every day in the workers’ lives is filled with ceremonies and pledges made in the name of Japan, from songs and salutes to the diligent efforts to keep productivity on the rise. After seeing such later, clearly anti-war films of his as "Ran," "Dreams" and "Rhapsody in August," the fact that Kurosawa once made something like "The Most Beautiful" is quite remarkable – even when one understands that its reflected beliefs don’t necessarily correspond with his own. Yet his portrayal of the women and their strong relationships with one another come across as the most sincere and universal facets of the film. Even when their efforts reach near-fanatical levels – most notably when Watanabe determinedly keeps working in the face of personal tragedy and physical discomfort – their touching displays of solidarity and perseverance illustrate an emphasis on teamwork and loyalty that would reappear later on in Kurosawa’s career in films like "Seven Samurai" and "Sanjuro."

"The Most Beautiful" also provides some telling signs of Kurosawa’s growth as a visual storyteller. The women’s progress and slumps in productivity are represented onscreen by an animated graph that reappears throughout the film. Their plain appearances, tiring routines and the various stations and machines where they toil are captured with a keen attention to gritty authenticity which Kurosawa partially evoked by having his actresses actually live at the factory where the film was shot and regularly carry out the tasks that are shown in the film. He regularly finds creative ways to explore and develop the story like revisiting a janitor character who comments on the women’s progress and using the supervisors’ walk through the plant to introduce new settings and characters (much like the scene in "Seven Samurai" in which the hired warriors explore the village while forming their plan). At certain points, there are noticeable bursts of dramatic editing such as a volleyball game that quickly cuts between close-ups of the women’s faces. A nighttime sequence that gives way to a small flashback to childhood memories in a snowy town helps keep intact the human side of the characters, portraying them as individuals with their own histories prior to the outbreak of the war. Yet the film never lets viewers forget the greater cause that is continually positioned higher than any one person’s needs. This message of selfless devotion to a greater goal would later be applied in more humanistic ways to subjects dearer to Kurosawa’s heart than the wartime nationalism that was still coursing through Japan when he made "The Most Beautiful."

Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog

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