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Like SANSHIRO SUGATA PART 2, this film was never released in the U.S. for
political reasons. There's not any blatantly anti-American content, as in
SSP2, but THE MOST BEAUTIFUL, filmed by government request, was a
pro-Imperialist propaganda document.
Kurosawa gamely attempts to weave together a story which functions both as propaganda and as a tender coming-of-age story, but isn't entirely successful. This would have been a demanding proposition even for a seasoned pro, let alone a young director like Kurosawa, directing only his second feature.
The story follows a group of young girls working in an armaments factory in the latter days of WWII. The girls must increase production sharply. The girls suffer hardships of all sorts. One, Tao, emerges as the leader of the group. Through the travails of helping her coworkers meet their quotas, Tao learns courage, fortitude and compassion.
If all this sounds a little boring, that's because it is. Kurosawa's visual signatures are seldom seen. At least the performances are good, especially Yoko Yaguchi as Tao. Takashi Shimura has a thankless, do-nothing role as the foreman of the factory.
During the World War II, the management of a war industry of optical
instruments for weapons requests an effort from the workers to increase
the productivity during four months. The target for male workers is an
increase of 100% of the production, but the female workers, led by the
dedicated Tsuru Watanabe (Yôko Yaguchi), ask the direction to surpass
their goal from 50% to 70%. Along the period, the women have to
overcome illness and their personal problems to complete their quote.
"Ichiban Utsukushiku" is a war propaganda and tribute to the Japanese female workers in times of war by Akira Kurosawa recommended only for fans of this great director. The plot is boring in many moments, but I liked to see the humanization of the nationalist Japanese workers and this unusual perspective from a people that were sooner defeated in the war. The winners usually write the history from their perspective and this film is a rare testimony from the Japanese point of view. Watanabe is an enlightened character with her dedication and positive leadership. My vote is six.
Title (Brazil): "A Mais Bela" ("The Most Beautiful")
Ichiban utsukushiku (1944) 'THE MOST BEAUTIFUL' is Akira Kurosawa's
tribute to Japanese Women who supported the war effort (WWII) at the
'Home-Front'. It is analogous to films made in other countries at that
time. The nations that participated in the conflict all called upon
Women too help in the manufacturing process. Some successfully like
Great Britain, Soviet Russia and the U.S.A. Others like China, Fascist
Italy or Nazi Germany less so, with Imperial Japan falling in between.
Not from lack of effort, but of resources.
Like LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (2006) the film shows the war from the Japanese perspective. This is a propaganda film. That does not invalidate its message compared with the other participants in the conflict, it is just another point of view, made in wartime. The Women work in a optical factory which could pass for a 'Dickensian Workhouse'. Their work is important and they know it. The pressure of increased productivity with limited resources is clearly shown. It effects them all emotionally, physically and psychologically. The Men of the factory for the most part are unseen drones, except for the managers of the plant. They take a sensitive interest in the well being of their Female staff, without taking advantage of them. The War is largely unseen, but you know it is out there and getting closer all the time. The Director could see the end was coming, even if the Imperial General Staff could not.
The principal cast of Women actors are largely unknowns whose careers were brief before and after this film. They are all convincing in their roles and give believable characterizations. The only 'Star' recognizable too Western audiences would be the great TAKASHI SHIMURA. SHIMURA was a 'jake of all trades' for the TOHO Studios, Japan. His acting range spanned Business Men, Criminals, Detectives, Samurai and Scientists. Films of note, SHICHININ NO SAMURAI (1954) 'The Seven Samurai', GOJIRA (1954) 'Godzilla', CHIKYU BOEIGUN (1957) 'The Mysterians' and YOJIMBO (1961) 'Yojimbo, The Bodyguard'.
Those who have TCM or a well stocked local Library can take advantage of the films of AKIRA KUROSAWA and they should.
If you study this film then you can learn much about Japan, World War
Two, and Akira Kurosawa. This is the only film he made that was meant
to be propaganda, but his earlier film Sanshiro Sugata actually played
to themes more useful to a nation at war. If you make a film that
matches the zeitgeist of your country, that's great. But be forewarned
that your country's government may then ask you to inspire the people
to fight on, and you would then make a propaganda film, which is what
may have happened to Kurosawa. This fact shouldn't make you reject The
Most Beautiful because cinema in all countries in WW2 was used in the
war effort. Japan was no exception.
Kurosawa in interviews after the war revealed his dislike of the government censors. Toward the end of the war, Japanese were preparing for the possibility of the entire nation receiving an order from the Emporer to commit suicide, called "the Honorable Death of the 100 Million." Kurosawa didn't dispute that he would have followed the Emporer's directive, but did say that he and his colleagues jokingly agreed they would first go and kill all the censors.
The plot and action of the film is described elsewhere. There are things to watch for carefully as you view the film.
If you're in a university setting then there is one absolute advantage that you have -- access to a professor of management and organizational behavior. Why? Well, The Most Beautiful is practically a docu-drama on management science. The scientific methods of production and organizational management are more clearly documented in this film than in any other I can recall, anywhere. It also compares things like Stakhanovism to Hawthorne experiment studies and displays the early beginnings of total quality management and quality assurance methods later developed by Deming. If these terms are unfamiliar to you, then you need a professor of management science to watch the film and help you see what Kurosawa was putting in. Then consider that the film was released to the Japanese public, which assured that it would be viewed by American military intelligence organizations and the OSS.
Some specifics to look for in no particular order: the background music includes a sampling from Semper Fi, the USMC theme song; there's little talk of enemies but when they're mentioned, the British are named ahead of Americans; the factory managers back a young woman's rejection of her father's instruction to come home and take the place of his deceased wife, which is a break with tradition (almost the equivalent of bra-burning in wartime Japan); and, backgrounds are set in wartime Japan and reveal details of the industrial infrastructure.
There are many films by Kurosawa that feature sickness and health care in their plots. This one, Drunken Angel, Ikuru, The Quiet Duel, and Red Beard come to mind. Dodes' ka-den and Ran might also qualify as their main characters suffer from afflictions of the mind. Kurosawa's biggest films are Rashomon and The Seven Samurai, but his films with health and medicine in the plot are more prevalent in his career.
One caveat to The Most Beautiful is that it is long and does reflect the tastes of Japanese audiences who like their drama very obvious. Forgive yourself if you find Japanese drama becomes too boring in some places. The films can be very enjoyable and interesting, provided you approach them with the understanding that they are far different from what we experience as entertainment today.
I'm with MarkDClark on this one. Perhaps I found the propaganda just too
strong and overbearing. I found it hard to accept that the (male) bosses
the factory were so kind and considerate, and it was the workers that
flogged themselves to meet the new production targets.
Certainly most of the acting is terrific for this cast of mostly unknowns, although Shimura is totally wasted.
And a comment on the English title. It is pretty close to being a literal translation, but does not refer to physical beauty. The theme, according to my (Japanese) wife, is about who has the most beautiful mind i.e. who among all the workers has the most purely altruistic and patriotic nature. The lead actress achieves this "title" by working all night to cover for a sick workmate, then refusing to take the next day off to rest, AND refusing to go home when her mother dies (the same day). Given this background, "The Most Beautiful" is quite misleading as an English title.
To give this film its due, there are a number of touching scenes, and the way these girls work together, at its less intense periods, is a very pleasant camaraderie. But this feeling is is much less pleasant when the feeling is more intense and is therefore whipped-up patriotic fervour.
Also, from my point of view, the story ends at an odd point. Certainly Kurosawa ends it at the moment when the propaganda purpose is achieved, but it really doesn't work fifty years later.
There are many better Kurosawa films than this one. Don't be in too much of a hurry to see it.
Typical of Japanese war-time propaganda, the film suggests that Japan's
fascist ideology, its inculcation of fanatical obedience, its vast
perpetration of unthinkable atrocities in a systematic manner, and its
aggressive military expansionism can all be replaced by Japan's
supposed victimization. Rather telling in this respect is the song that
the girls repeatedly sing to boost morale, a song that recalls that
barbarian Mongol conquerors once tried to invade Japan from China, but
that the perpetrators of such heinous deeds of aggression could not
possibly co-exist under the same sky with the innocent and pure
Japanese-- this, of course, is being sung during a war that was begun
when an utterly unprovoked Japan invaded China and slaughtered untold
numbers of its population mercilessly.
All of this would be something that one could simply shrug off as the past blindness of war, but films such as these are more disturbing today than, say, Triumph of the Will because while Germany was forced to confront the horrors it had unleashed upon the world, most Japanese films even today (and textbooks for that matter) still tend to view Japan as a victim in the war (see, for instance, Kurosawa's own Rhapsody in August so many decades later). Assisted by the policies of the American post-war occupation, Japan has never had to come to terms with what it did to the planet, and what in human history can possibly more disturbing than a lack of accountability for the worst sins humanity can commit? And by the way, I say all of this despite the fact that Kurosawa is probably my favorite director.
This is a great movie - a must-see. I saw it without subtitles, and my Japanese wasn't good enough to catch most of the dialog, but the raw emotional power of the cast and of the imagery made it easy to follow - completely engrossing, in fact. The story is about a group of women factory workers in WWII Japan, and how each one must overcome whatever personal hardship they face to help the group succeed. The sense of being swept up in a titanic struggle, and the almost superhuman selflessness and group cohesion that that breeds, are the same themes treated in "Twelve-O'clock High". The two movies would make an enlightening double feature. One image sticks with me: although it's not focused on, throughout the movie you see the women carefully taking off their shoes and placing them neatly by the door as they come in to the dormitory, and you see them carefully put them on as they leave. During one scene, when a girl is returning from the hospital, everyone rushes to greet her. Kurosawa cuts to a shot of the shoes, as they are thoughtlessly trampled by the women eager to meet their friend.
A curious film from Kurosawa, given what came later, this is a nationalist film about a group of young women who are working at an optical instruments factory who are given the task to greatly increase productivity for the good of the country and the war effort. It shows them rarely at play, mostly very focused at work. Takako Irie plays the dorm mother, a somewhat sympathetic character. This film is more inherently Japanese than most of Kurosawa's later work, its almost a propaganda film. However, there is also some heart in the characters, and that is what makes it a recommended film. You sense the young ladies anguish over being sick and having family difficulties, making them unable to work. So, not essential viewing but still watchable and Kurosawa fans should check it out.
Propaganda films are usually of interest to me because of the situation
and time period they were made in and their point of view not because
of plot or sublime character development. Rarely do the
characterizations, I currently cannot think of one, go beyond one or
two dimensions. This is because the point of the propaganda film
regardless of origin is to rally the troops and align their sense of
duty. This movie is no different in that regard. But there are several
key differences from the typical propaganda film that makes this film
more interesting. The most interesting approach was the documentary
approach Kurosawa took. Though he used actresses he did all he could to
remove the artificiality of their craft to create a realistic portrait
of the young girls at that time who were working in military
construction. I felt this movie was effective in that regard. The
tempered acting to those that are used to the Noh influenced acting of
his later films. Another surprise is that this is one of two films of
Kurosawa where the protagonist is a woman. The other one is No Regrets
For Our Youth (1946) with Setsuko Hara.
The least interesting aspect of the film is the story. It is about a group of young women in an optical instrument factory that have to push up production to fill the need for the optical lens. While the men were asked to increase their production a hundred percent, the women were asked to do 50 percent. This insulted the women and they asked that they do a more respectable number like 66 percent (would a higher number have been insulting to the men?). The hardships created by this are numerable as the women face sickness, injury, mental breakdown and general crabbiness.
The movie is too episodic and heavy on the "team spirit" motif (not that Kurosawa had much of a choice), but it eventually settles on the titular protagonist in Tsuru Watanabe (Yoko Yaguchi) who embodies the spirit (kokoro) of an ideal worker. Her mother is dying, but her father and her mother want her to stay in the factory working so that Japan will not lose face. What is subversive is that she is a stubborn individualist. When she loses track of lens that she did not finish correcting, she goes through the monument task of finding it, and regardless of the pain it causes her, the lack of sleep and her supervisors telling her she does not need to do it she does it anyways.
I do not agree with Donald Richie in his The Films of Akira Kurosawa when he states "Twenty years later it is almost impossible for us to think a lost lens this important." She states that she worries that lost lens might result in the death of Japanese soldiers (and possibly in her mind a battle and ultimately the war). It does not matter if she is correct in this thinking, it only matters that she feels that way. Anyone who has any degree of OCD can relate to this. Once the mind gets fixed with an idea that may haunt them it is easy to understand the monomania which consumes her until she finds her mistake.
One thing that surprised me when hearing it in the film, and the fact that Kurosawa got away with putting into the score (he mentions this in his autobiography), is the insertion of "Semper Fidelis" by John Philip Sousa.
Has anyone seen any other Kurosawa film where he uses as many horizontal wipes? After the picture he married the main actress Yoko Yaguchi. It was love at first sight. Kurosawa stated "She was a terribly stubborn and uncompromising person, and since I am very much the same, we often clashed head on." I do wonder how well they got along over the years though.
I think this film can satisfy not only Akira Kurosawa fans but fans of social realist cinema and of course those looking for propaganda films of WWII. If someone is just getting into Japanese cinema this probably could be passed on for quite a long awhile. But for completists (those reading this) they will want to see this. But then again completists want to see everything.
The best propaganda movie ever made. Every element of Japanese artfulness has gone into this picture. The finest in visual composition and dramatic exposition have both been harnessed to create this film, but it is not art but propaganda. It's impossible not to regard this film without realizing that this was meant to manipulate the population to suffer and sacrifice in order for the war machine to fight, kill and conquer. Compare Ichiban Utsukushiku to the German Jew Suss or the un-released Titanic or the American Hangmen Also Die or Mrs. Miniver or any of the combat films made by the waring nations and they are dreadfully crude by comparison. Maybe it can only be approached by something like Minnelli's The Clock for overall design concept and subtlety of purpose. Then again The Clock isn't full blown propaganda like Kurosawa's Ichiban Utsukushiku. How could the director, Kurosawa, (it was his second credited film) not become the great International master he became?
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