Friday 25 May 2012

The Most Beautiful

Beautiful Dreamer

The Most Beautiful Japan 1944
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Criterion Collection Region 1

So here I go again. Reviewing a movie by one of my favourite directors. Reviewing a movie by my absolute “directing God”, in actual fact. Oh well... at least there’s absolutely no danger that he’s going to seek me out and come break my arms.

Kurosawa’s The Most Beautiful was only his second gig at directing, after having worked his way up through the Toho Studio Apprentice System learning all aspects of film making. Since his first movie Sanshiro Sugata (reviewed here) had been a roaring success, so much so that he would soon be “persuaded” to make the sequel as his third film (one of only two sequels he ever made to any of his movies, the other being the Yojimbo sequel Sanjuro), it was inevitable that he would soon get dragged into making a war propaganda film.

Originally he was supposed to make a movie about Zero fighter pilots... but Japan was losing the war and he reportedly wanted to save on using planes which couldn’t be spared. So he concocted this story of women who work, live and sleep in a factory manufacturing lenses for the war effort.

The movie starts off with a very familiar face to fans of Kurosawa, as actor Takashi Shimura, playing the part of the director of the factory, announces via a loudspeaker system that the quota’s have been upped for the workers due to the increased demand for optical equipment in the war. There’s a 100% rise in targets for the male workforce and a 50% rise for the female workforce. The community of women we follow in this film are looked after by their... well den mother is a good a term as any, I guess... wonderfully played by actress Yôko Yaguchi. However, she has problems with “her girls” following this announcement because, well, the women are in an uproar about the quota hikes.

Now if this movie were set now or made today, you’d be able to see where this was going straight away... but this is wartime propaganda, and these were not the attitudes the government wanted to push. Turns out the women are upset because their new targets are only half of what the men have been asked to do. They want to do their bit and so they see the bosses and they let them up their targets to about three quarters of what the men are being asked to do.

The film is very much about a sense of community spirit, which is very much a Kurosawa concern as shown in later masterpieces like Red Beard, Dodes'ka-den and even Madadayo. It also, however, takes the traditional propaganda route and emphasises the value of the “group agenda” over the individual... something I suspect Kurosawa would have been very uneasy with given the concerns of a lot of his other films, which often value the diversity and prowess of the individual over the less interesting “hive mind”.

The shot design (in its original 4:3 pre-scope aspect ratio) is the usual Kurosawa brilliance combined with editing which is so perfect you won’t even notice it. It just flows along before your eyes dragging you in without you even realising it’s doing it. There are many who will argue that this is one of the main goals of film, to make you forget you’re watching it. Not me. I love looking at the way the shots work and seeing the way my emotions are being manipulated on-screen as I’m watching (possibly one of the reasons I have a soft spot for horror films). It’s odd then that I single out Kurosawa as being the epitome of his art when his movies never call any attention to the way they are put together... but something in me definitely responds to his genius in a way that I prize above the works of others. Go figure.

This film is filled with strong performances and, though it does have a few male Kurosawa regulars that fans of his work will surely enjoy seeing, it is the group of female workers who steal the show. Although Yôko Yaguchi is amazing as the woman who will not return home to her province even for the death of her mother because duty calls (she instead sheds her tears at her work bench while she continues to calibrate the next batch of lenses), this really is one of those films which benefits from the talents of the whole ensemble as opposed to focusing on individual performances... which is kind of a given in this type of military propaganda, I suppose. Interestingly, Kurosawa does manage to often single out Yaguchi’s character for praise from her bosses in the factory, not to mention her coworkers, but the emphasis is always on kind words to reward individual sacrifice. Maybe this was Kurosawa’s way of trying to inject a little of the individual” into his movie.

Either way, The Most Beautiful is not considered, to my knowledge, to be a key work of Kurosawa’s career... but as I mentioned earlier, it does share certain attitudes with some of his later work and it does this first. I believe he probably learnt a thing or two on this one and, while it’s not necessarily a good jumping on point for the Kurosawa novice, I’d certainly recommend it to any Kurosawa fan... as I probably would any of his work to be honest.

As for the talented Yôko Yaguchi... you might be wondering what happened to her after her impressive performance in this, which happened to be the last film she acted in. Well, apparently she rallied round her girls on set much like she does in the film... Kurosawa had, after all, got his cast living, staying, learning the lens making process and sleeping at the factory full-time so it probably wasn’t a problem for the actors and actresses to identify with their roles given these circumstances (Kurosawa was always pretty thorough). Apparently Yaguchi and Kurosawa had a lot of “on set” arguments during filming and developed a grudging respect as they got to know one another. Which is why Yaguchi never made another film and started up an altogether different kind of “production company” with her former director. What was Kurosawa to do when faced with a strong woman of artistic temperament? Dear reader, he married her.

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