Review: The Most Beautiful
3 out of 5 stars
In a material war, what your side lacks in material, you need to make up for in spirit. Or so the Japanese told themselves during the war, and that is the driving point in The Most Beautiful.
The Most Beautiful is the second film directed by internationally acclaimed Japanese filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa. Like Sugata Sanshiro before it, The Most Beautiful is a product of World War II. However, while one could characterize Sugata Sanshiro simply as a film with subject matter that was deemed safe for the time, The Most Beautiful is pure propaganda.
The film follows a group of girls working in an optic lens factory during World War II. The girls' leader is one Watanabe-san (Yoko Yaguchi, Kurosawa's wife), a kind of Japanese Rosie the Riveter (Tokyo Rosie the Riveter?). When the factory's chief, Ishida-san (Takashi Shimura, Seven Samurai) raises the girls' quota by 50 percent, the girls gripe that it wasn't raised by 100 percent like the boys'. The girls exert themselves to exceed their quota.
The girls work to the point of exhaustion. This leads to mistakes and petty bickering. The girls play volleyball and sing patriotic songs to raise their morale.
Akira Kurosawa was one of Japan's greatest directors and storytellers. This film is distinctly Kurosawa with the director's characteristic wipes and long takes. However, as a piece of storytelling, The Most Beautiful is a failure. That is not to say that there are no humorous moments or likeable characters, but no character experiences the kind of dynamic change that drives good fiction.
The film focuses mainly on the Watanabe character, who remains static throughout. She is the hardest, most dedicated worker at the beginning of the movie, and she remains so at the end. She sacrifices sleep to find a defective lens, and even stays away from her dying mother's bedside to work. No conflict can shake her dedication. There are minor external conflicts throughout the movie that Watanabe-san straightens out nicely by virtue of her dedication to her job.
The Most Beautiful is an important film in terms of historical context. Rarely do we get to see propaganda from the other side, and this film is a good illustration of extreme Japanese values at an extreme moment in Japanese history. The Japanese realized that they were at a technological disadvantage to the Allied Powers, but insisted that they could win by virtue of their spirit (apparently they weren't counting on American boys having spirit too). Militaristic slogans adorn the factory. The girls adhere to Zen Buddhist values as they emphasize hard work above all else, while the boys sing a militaristic song hoping for the "destruction of America and Britain."
While The Most Beautiful is an important work in a historical sense, it is unworthy of Kurosawa's later, greater films.