July 31, 2008

The Most Beautiful (1944 film)

Written & directed by Akira Kurosawa.

In a story somewhat similar to then contemporary situations in the U.S., propagandist banners hang from the rafters as the wives and daughters of Japan pick up the slack in the factories when the men go out to fight in WWII. With it come the additional burdens of leaving their families behind to live in state dorms, of being required to simultaneously form a marching band to play moral-boosting anthems on the streets, and of dealing with a constant "always increase production" mentality which looks upon sickness and injury as dishonorable acts committed against family, company, and nation.

Through it all, two women take charge. Noriko Mizushima (Takako Irie), widowed early in the war, keeps the women restful and fed as their dorm mother. Tsuru Watanabe (Yoko Yaguchi) is their leader on the factory floor, motivating, organizing, and acting as liaison to the company heads.

I've seen others call this a propaganda film, but I don't agree. Though it's never overtly critical, the nationalistic military state is indeed portrayed as a terrible burden that slowly wears on these characters, right up until the very end. No, I think Kurosawa is more interested in the women who continued to sacrifice in the face of such a system, best exemplified by the phenomenal performance of Yaguchi, whom the director would marry a year later.

It's a small, quiet film but, if you're willing to listen, it has a lot to say. Sadly, it's much harder to find than it should be, and most available versions have mangled subtitles which can be a bit tricky to decipher. Criterion needs to get off its ass and put out a solid version that Kurosawa fans, both old and new, can study and appreciate for generations to come.

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