The Most Beautiful (Early Kurosawa 2)
- Starring: Takashi Shimura, Sôji Kiyokawa, Ichirô Sugai
The Most Beautiful is a wartime propaganda film about women working in an optics factory directed by Kurosawa in a pseudo documentary style. He was originally approached to make a film about Zero fighter pilots but, at that stage of the war, it wasn’t feasible to loan out Japanese military assets for the sake of a film shoot. He instead made The Most Beautiful, a film that stands as a unique outlier in his filmography. While it isn’t necessarily good, especially in comparison to the rest of Kurosawa’s work, The Most Beautiful does have some things going for it and is a curious example of an instance where a filmmaker may not fully believe in the material he’s creating.
The film opens with the optics factory director announcing new emergency mandates for the men and women who work there. The women are asked to increase their productivity by 50% for the next four months while the men are asked to increase their productivity by 100%. The women then plead with management to get their mandate changed to a 100% increase in productivity to match the men. Therein lies what appeal there is in The Most Beautiful. The jingoism and strive of the women to perform at the same standards of the men is interesting all on its own. It may be a reflection of the culture as well as the time, but the nature of propaganda films makes the art into curiosity pieces.
The enthusiasm of the women who want to work just as hard as the men is where the propaganda of The Most Beautiful is at its clearest. Another element to their plight involves the dormitory the women live in while they work. The most dramatic thing that can happen to the characters is to fall ill and be sent home. It’s not due to the connections they’ve forged in the optics factory, however, The drama lies in their being sent home where they can’t work or be a part of the war effort.
There are some fine enough dramatic moments baked into The Most Beautiful, like when the women are feeling down about their numbers, only to see fighter jets in the sky that renew their resolve. But there’s an overbearing feeling throughout the film that Kurosawa either doesn’t believe in the propaganda he’s creating or isn’t able to bring anything other than the propaganda into the film.
While Kurosawa would go on to make incredible postwar Japan films like Stray Dog and One Wonderful Sunday, The Most Beautiful is an interesting footnote in his career. It’s a film that never rises above the propaganda to be anything grander in substance. Yet there’s an unmistakable confidence in Kurosawa’s directing and an authenticity he brings to the women working in the factory that can’t be denied. Though it’s far from the best of Kurosawa, it’s definitely a unique entry in the man’s filmography.
The Most Beautiful is currently available to stream on Criterion Channel.
Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.