The Most Beautiful is a wartime propaganda film depicting the efforts of female factory workers in a precision-lens manufacturing plant. It is episodic and anecdotal and very documentary-like. Donald Richie records specific instances of documentary techniques borrowed principally from Russian filmmakers such as the austere and static composition of its scenes. This need not be entertained to any considerable degree: the point is, holistically, the overwhelming impression is one of a document. We see many shots of the lens-making equipment, and through these learn the process of lens manufacture itself. Nearly every scene is segmented with shots of a parade (a military band, a marching platoon of young soldiers, etc.) and the film itself was shot in a real factory, a length to which Kurosawa would rarely go in later work.
From the outset we learn that production quotas are being increased to meet the extravagant demand of the war machine. The women workers, however, have only been given an increase of half their normal load. The leader of this tight-knit band asks for a much larger quota so that the women may contribute to the war effort as much as the men. After this we have a series of vignettes as these women struggle to meet the quota amidst sickness, doubt and loss.
This was made at a time when Kurosawa clearly believed in collective action with remnants of Marxism languishing in his subconscious. This fact should not be dismissed. While it does adhere to the rigors of wartime guidelines, Kurosawa wrote this story himself and believed in it. He wanted to make it. While it is filmed in a very episodic way, with focus cast upon various individuals, it rings of the collective. As a result, the structure of this film almost has to be ignored, at least for the purposes of this piece. That’s not to say that The Most Beautiful lacks merit on these grounds for certainly it is an important document of a particular time in history; a history we can come to know as well from propaganda as we can from literature, textbooks and various art forms. But his plot so overshadows whatever personal statement Kurosawa might have intended that we have to look elsewhere for the message. And I think it is to be found in his methods.
In his early work, this film included, you can see Kurosawa intuitively utilizing cinematic techniques to convey a story. It is an unconscious process of discovery, like Edwin Porter realizing parallel editing in The Great Train Robbery or D. W. Griffith discovering various narrative techniques that would become instituted film grammar. The education of Akira Kurosawa as director is rapid. The experiments of his early work would coalesce into a fully conscious cinematic language by the 50s, realized with Rashōmon, Ikiru and others. There is a strong connection between the aesthetics, motifs and storytelling devices used here as in the film preceding it and the postwar work to follow.
But, once again, I think this film is unique in his oeuvre for its traditional, even feudal, belief in the collective. It is humanistic, though less than later works, but not individualistic. Richie puts it succinctly this way: “From this film on he ceased to believe in people, but he had the strength to continue to believe in persons, in individuals.” It may be comforting to read subtle critiques of the war machine into this film, but given what I’ve cited above, it’s hardly tenable. There is, however, a possibility that Kurosawa was indeed inserting crafty, subversive commentary. The following items could lead one to perceive this:
A short scene of four dozen high school-age girls uniformly pledging loyalty to the emperor, the gods, their families and ancestors. They pledge to endure hardships, to be unselfish: “We are women of the empire. Today we will do our best to help destroy America and Britain.” And finally swearing to preserve these ideals for their descendants.
The various propaganda posters in the optics workshop reading, “Follow the example of the war dead!” & “This too is a battlefield.”
The shot of a sword upon an altar that belonged to a fallen soldier, which immediately cuts to the above schoolroom pledge.
But we have to remember that a key plot element is the girls asking to have their production quotas increased. In one sense it’s admirable that these girls conquer their personal struggles for the sake of their country, but in another sense they are being exploited. Fortunately, Kurosawa’s camera never is. Instead, using the lens the girls have so diligently crafted, he magnifies their personal stories by superimposing the “fight!” wartime ennui upon their lives. This is his humanism. And this aspect of the film really makes me want to believe that Kurosawa crafted a subversive picture despite its state-accepted war pandering. Also, watching the living components of a society soon to collapse is an odd activity. It may be instructive. We can imagine the sump of Drunken Angel to be the factory of this film before the American fire bombings that were about to take place. We are forced to ask ourselves: what can we learn from this document? What does it tell us about an ephemeral Japan specifically and what does it tell us about our own societies?