Originally appeared on GreenCine Daily for release of the AK100 set. They are now being issued as part of Criterion's The First Films of Akira Kurosawa set.
1. The Most Beautiful
By Andrew Grant
Likely the rarest and least-seen title in the AK 100 box set, The Most Beautiful (1944) is Kurosawa's second directorial effort, made one year after his successful debut, the Judo-themed Sanshiro Sugata. A bit of a sophomore slump, this overt bit of war propaganda is hard to praise from both an aesthetic and narrative perspective, but it's not without its merits.
Opening with a title card that reads "Attack and Destroy the Enemy" and set entirely in an optical instruments factory that makes lenses for assorted Japanese weaponry, The Most Beautiful is a self-described Information Bureau "Movie of the People," designed to stir up nationalist fervor for the Imperial war effort. After a rousing speech about spiritual power producing material might and a need to increase quotas, the film follows the lives of the female factory workers who are disappointed to learn that their expected productivity increases aren't as aggressive as their male coworkers. With youthful idealism and aplomb, they long to prove that their patriotism is unyielding, and are willing to make any and all sacrifices to meet their goals. When not working seemingly endless shifts at the factory, they are either back in their dormitory singing loyalist songs, or marching and singing even more jingoistic songs. They even talk proudly in their sleep about their jobs.
When illness, mishaps or tragedies occur, productivity slips (as shown by a frequently appearing animated graph), for what affects one affects all. When a woman must leave owing to illness—or another from falling off a roof—morale hits rock bottom, but a quick game of volleyball can fix that. The female group leader (played by Kurosawa's future wife, Yoko Yaguchi) decides to stay at the factory even though her mother is dying, while another hides her tuberculosis so as not to let down her country. Told somewhat episodically, these mini-melodramas don't amount to much, and are merely exercises in disseminating its propagandistic message. The closest the film gets to something resembling dramatic tension is an extended sequence about a misplaced lens, and the tireless, selfless efforts by one woman to locate it amongst thousands, for she fears Japanese soldiers will die as a result. It manages to be both illuminating and hokey at the same time.
Kurosawa takes a documentary-like approach, going so far as to have his cast learn how to use the equipment and live together in the factory dormitory during the entire shoot. The montage sequences are clearly influenced by both Russian and German docs, particularly in the editing: the shots incrementally decrease in length, resulting in an ever-increasing pace. There's a greater visual emphasis on people than place, the frame regularly filled with the faces (and on occasion, feet) of the female workers. The economical presentation he would become famous for is already evident here, and a scene where a woman is taking her temperature might be his earliest use of the jump cut, a technique he would master later in his career.
As Donald Ritchie points out in his book The Films of Akira Kurosawa, it's interesting to note that the film's emphasis on group-thought (a particularly Japanese trait) and the belief in community action is something that Kurosawa would actively shun for the rest of his career, choosing instead to focus on the power of the individual, which would lead some Japanese critics to later accuse him of being too Western.
Neither pure documentary nor straightforward narrative, The Most Beautiful is a curiosity at best. Kurosawa completists will no doubt be compelled to seek out this career stepping stone, but newcomers would be best suited to begin with one of his masterworks—which the AK 100 box features in spades.
Next: The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail
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