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The Most Beautiful
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The Most Beautiful

Synopsis: The setting is a military lens factory in the town of Hiratsuka, Japan at the height of World War II. A division of young women strives to meet the increased production quota set by the factory's production head (Takashi Shimura). Despite their discipline and spiritual dedication to the war effort, the women encounter one problem after another: fatigue, illness, and in one case, the death of a family member back home. The most dedicated worker of all is Tsuru Watanabe (Yôko Yaguchi), who faces an additional set of challenges as the young women's leader.

The Most Beautiful (1944) was Akira Kurosawa's second feature film after Sanshiro Sugata (1943). It remains a notable example of the "national policy" films promoted by Japan's Office of Public Information for the war effort. As Donald Richie points out in his book The Japanese Film, Japan did not have a strong tradition of war films like those found in the West. Initially these Japanese national policy films tended not to be "ultranationalistic," nor did they rely on crude stereotypes of foreign enemies. Rather, they tried to inspire patriotism by emphasizing the beauty of the Japanese spirit and the value of self-sacrifice.

The Most Beautiful remains mostly within this framework, although the characters repeatedly sing a patriotic song about the failed Mongol invasion of 1281--a defining moment in Japanese history. Kurosawa clearly meant for the lyrics ("The barbarians are invading from the south...") to resonate with his contemporary Japanese audience. In fact, this was not Kurosawa's first experience working on a "national policy" film. His mentor Kajiro Yamamoto directed what is perhaps the best-known of all Japanese wartime films, The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malay (1942), which includes a startlingly realistic recreation of Pearl Harbor. Kurosawa also directed Sanshiro Sugata Part Two (1945), in which the budding judo master fights with an aggressive American sailor.

Although The Most Beautiful displays a few of Kurosawa's characteristic stylistic traits, especially the use of vertical or horizontal wipes for scene transitions, its semi-documentary style is atypical of the director's work. The film historian Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto claims that the film's semi-documentary style and its focus on wartime factory production were in fact fairly common during that period in Japan; in that regard, perhaps the film should be understood mainly as a wartime genre film rather than as a "Kurosawa film" in the usual sense. At the same time, its careful lighting of close-ups and its spare but pointed use of camera movements reveal a young director already mastering his craft.

Kurosawa used professional actors in the major roles, but he took great care to cultivate realistic performances. In one interview he stated of the young women playing the factory workers: "I told them to play it like amateurs. And I really made them live together in a dormitory during the filming, and made them do lots of things--running, for example--which they had never done before, in order to remove their polish, their hesitations in these roles which were so different from any they had ever played before." The resulting sincerity of their performances makes the film emotionally engaging even today. Kurosawa also recalled that the girls had to live under the same difficult conditions as the actual factory workers, eating mainly seaweed and rice mixed with other grains. He and the other crew members occasionally brought sweet potatoes to share with them. After the film was finished, Kurosawa married Yôko Yaguchi, who played the girls' leader Watanabe. He later said of the film: "The Most Beautiful is not a major motion picture, but it is the one dearest to me."

Producer: Motohiko Ito
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa
Cinematography: Joji Ohara
Art Direction: Teruaki Abe
Music: Seiichi Suzuki
Cast: Takashi Shimura (Factory production head), Ichiro Sugai (Assistant), Yôko Yaguchi (Tsuru Watanabe), Takako Irie (Dorm mother), Sachiko Ozaki (Sachiko Yamazaki), Shizuko Nishigaki (Fusae Nishioka), Asako Suzuki (Asako Suzumura), Shizuko Yamada (Hisae Yamaguchi).
BW-85m.

by James Steffen

SOURCES:
Something Like an Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa
Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto
The Films of Akira Kurosawa by Donald Richie
The Japanese Film by Donald Richie

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