The Most Beautiful 一番美しく (1944) – Japan
The film adds drama with tiny details, and the performances shine.
Because it is a propaganda film, Kurosawa makes sacrifices narrative. Considerations on theme could not be made.
Thermometers & Clocks
When new war demands force management to ramp up production in a precision optics factory, young volunteer worker women struggle to meet the quotas. They’ll have to learn that there is reward found in cooperation, when pettiness is put aside, or face a great disappointment: they hindered their country’s cause, rather than help.
You feel sympathy for these girls, as they march to work, like soldiers, and desire their peace during their four month long stint of hyper-production. Can’t they go home, you keep telling yourself. And immediately you care.
As with Kurosawa’s first film, Sanshiro Sugata, the narrative here is straightforward and short. But the director reveals a dense message with his deep-focus set design and clever editing. It is not enough to sacrifice just yourself. Sacrifice it all.
Like other propaganda films of the time, The Most Beautiful is shot in a fictional documentary fashion, with scenes pulled close and the acts predictable. The dialogue is crisp and natural, and so you can better follow the story. Kurosawa insists this. These girls are real, even if they aren’t. The desired effect of boost works.
A great emphasis is put on respect to one’s parents, and a recurring dilemma during the film is the toll on the family back at home. Many of the girls have begged to volunteer, leaving their parents for the cause. But it’s not so easy to keep the distance; when the work increases, many desire the comforts of family living.
And who could blame them? The living conditions are meek. Indoor environments, of the factory and the dorm, are tight, like a prison. And, though the girls can leave at any time, their choice to stay – most of them – , under fast changes, adds emotion you can resonate with. They are still trapped, to either abandon the cause and fall in regret, or struggle through their duties and still maybe fail.
Kurosawa focuses on small tools, like a shared thermometer, that the girls use to check for fever, or a clock in the dorm mother’s office, to sway the passage of time. And it’s exciting to see the movie use these items as plot device. You pivot your attention from one to another, remembering how many girls there actually are, struggling for space and identity – well actually more.
Though Kurosawa fought for creative control during the production, to introduce more Western-influenced ideas, The Most Beautiful is a small, smart work that exemplifies his unique design sense, edging toward innovations to come, of how to motivate with theme and subtle shot repetition, mood, and lonesome characters. Even if the point of this Toho film was to boost public spirits during Japan’s wartime decline, this pep rally of a work is privately endearing.