Akira Kurosawa’s wartime film, THE MOST BEAUTIFUL (1944) is a propaganda drama that was designed to glorify the efforts of teenage girls recruited to work on the production of implements for Japan’s combat with Allied forces. Here they work in a factory making lenses for bomb sights and all live together in a dormitory. They are shown embracing their work and plunging into it with wholehearted patriotic fervor. The film plays like Soviet propaganda of an earlier era or Chinese Communist propaganda of a later era, but with characteristic Kurosawa touches, including a succession of great closeups and a focus on the human element even in the midst of celebrating the collective spirit.
The dramatic conflicts in the film arise when girls get ill or injured and feel they’re letting down their sisters by being sent home or to the hospital. One even colludes with the group leader in hiding her nightly fevers. When their production quota is increased they complain that their increase is only half what it is for the boys (50% versus 100%). Make it “at least two-thirds,” they insist. When fatigue inevitably sets in, followed by irritability, the girls cry for letting it interfere with their productivity. When the group leader, Watanabe, learns that her mother has died, she opts to stay and work rather than return home as the supervisors wish. She knows that her mother would insist that “I must never shirk my duty and go home, no matter what.” The three male supervisors are compassionate, caring, and sensitive and though they exhort the girls with such slogans as “every single one of you must become an outstanding human being,” they never yell at them or browbeat them in any way.
As a baby boomer who grew up in an era when World War II propaganda was still pervasive and even postwar combat movies contained frequent references to “Japs,” I’ve had it ingrained in me since childhood to see the war treated a certain way, so I still find it startling when I encounter propaganda from the other side. Given my immersion in Japanese cinema and all my reading about the period, I know I shouldn’t be surprised when I do, but then, despite seeing hundreds of Japanese films and TV episodes since childhood, I’ve actually seen only a few examples of Japanese propaganda about the war. I’ve seen some blatant animated propaganda from that period, including two of the Momotaro films, but hardly any other feature films. (It’s not uncommon, however, to find resentment towards America expressed here and there in later Japanese films and anime, sometimes veiled, sometimes not.) THE MOST BEAUTIFUL, on the other hand, opens with the legend, “Attack and Destroy the Enemy,” by which they mean Americans! Later in the film, during the girls’ “morning pledge,” they chant, “Today we will do our best to help destroy America and Britain.” I think it comes as more of a shock because I’m hearing it from one of my favorite filmmakers, a man who looked up to American and European filmmakers even before the war.
I’d previously seen Kurosawa’s postwar film, NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH (1946), which roundly criticized Japanese militarism in a tale that spanned the full period of Japan’s imperial aggression in the 1930s and ’40s. (One of the film’s heroes is an anti-war activist persecuted as a spy and a traitor.) So it was something of a surprise to see what a 180-degree turn Kurosawa made in only two years and I thought I’d try to explore some of the background to this film. What was life really like at the factory depicted in the film? Were the girls always so cheerful or did they leap at the first chance to rush home when they could? I can’t imagine that the male supervisors in real life were so kindly and benevolent. I wonder what was going through Kurosawa’s head at the time he made this, especially since he must have been aware that Japan didn’t have a chance of winning the war by that point. Looking for clues, I first turned to the liner notes for the film on the Criterion DVD case, written by Stephen Prince:
Inspired by the great silent-era Soviet films of Eisenstein and Dovzhenko, Kurosawa resolved to make the film as a semidocumentary, a move that anticipated the social realism that would become a prominent feature of his style in the postwar years. As he would do on such films as One Wonderful Sunday (1947) and Stray Dog (1949), he shot much of The Most Beautiful on location, at the Nippon Kogaku factory in Hiratsuka, and he had the actresses live and work at the factory headquarters. Kurosawa drilled them in factory routines and had them assemble into a fife and drum corps, as their characters do. He aimed to scrub all traces of theater and professionalism from their performances.
The film’s theme—the necessity of complete self-sacrifice to the nation–was in harmony with the repressive state ideology of kokutai, but it was not an idea that Kurosawa personally believed in. In place of an individual hero struggling with issues of conscience and society—the premise of many of his postwar films—Kurosawa here concentrates on the dedication of the factory workers as home-front soldiers in the great national struggle. In the powerful closing shot, one of the film’s main characters, Tsuru [Watanabe] (Yoko Yaguchi), sits at her workbench, diligently meeting her production quota while blinking away tears over the death of her mother. Kurosawa brilliantly holds the shot, letting its duration emphasize the contradiction between personal feelings and national duty. Kurosawa believed deeply in nonconformity and the worth of the individual and The Most Beautiful shows impressively how he could channel his filmmaking talents into the expression of ideas he did not embrace. When he looked back on the war after many years, he chastised himself for doing so little to resist the nation’s descent into militarism.
All well and good, but I wanted to hear Kurosawa say all this in his own words. So I dug out his book, “Something Like an Autobiography,” published in English in 1983 and translated by Audie E. Bock. Here are some quotes from the chapter on THE MOST BEAUTIFUL:
Reflecting upon my actions now, I must conclude that I was a terribly rough director to work for. It is really quite amazing how they all did without question what I told them to do. But then, in the mood that prevailed during wartime, everyone took orders as a matter of course. I was not consciously asking these girls to behave in a selfless, patriotic fashion. The fact is that the theme of the film is self-sacrificing service to one’s country, and if we had not gone about preparing for in this way, the characters would have been like cardboard cutouts and lacked all reality….
The spirit with which we shot was exactly the same as if we had been making a pure documentary film. The girls in each section of the factory of course spoke the lines of the drama that were set down in the script, but rather than paying attention to the camera they were totally absorbed in carrying out the factory job they were learning and in monitoring the workings of the machinery. In their concentrated expressions and movements there was almost no trace of the self-consciousness actors have, only the vitality and beauty of people at work.
The full impact of this quality comes through best in the sequence I edited together of many, many closeups of each girl at her place in the factory. As background music for these closeups I used the inspiring sound of the battle drum from the John Philip Sousa march, “Semper Fidelis,” which lent them the courage and heroism of soldiers in the front lines fighting the war. (Oddly enough, even though I used march music by an American composer, the censors from the Ministry of the Interior sat through this sequence without labeling it “British-American.”
The food at the factory was awful. It usually consisted of broken rice mixed with corn or millet, or broken rice mixed with some other weedy grain. The main dish was always some kind of seaweed or kelp that had been culled from the nearby shore. We on the crew felt sorry for the actresses, who had to eat this miserable fare and then work more than an eight-hour day. We each contributed from our own pockets every day and had someone go out and buy sweet potatoes. We steamed them in the kettle-style dormitory bathtub, which was heated with a wood fire, and gave them to the girls.
There’s more about the production, but not what I was looking for in terms of Kurosawa’s thoughts about the material. So I kept reading and found some key passages in his chapter on “The Japanese”:
After the war my work went smoothly again, but before I begin to write about that, I would like to look back once more at myself during the war. I offered no resistance to Japan’s militarism. Unfortunately, I have to admit that I did not have the courage to resist in any positive way, and I only got by, ingratiating myself when necessary and otherwise evading censure. I am ashamed of this, but I must be honest about it.
Because of my own conduct, I can’t very well put on self-righteous airs and criticize what happened during the war. The freedom and democracy of the post-war era were not things I had fought for and won; they were granted to me by powers beyond my own. As a result, I felt it was all the more essential for me to approach them with an earnest and humble desire to learn, and make them my own. But most Japanese in those post-war years simply swallowed the concepts of freedom and democracy whole, waving slogans around without really knowing what they meant.
On August 15, 1945, I was summoned to the studio along with everyone else to listen to the momentous proclamation on the radio: the Emperor himself was to speak over the air waves. I will never forget the scenes I saw as I walked the streets that day. On the way from Soshigaya to the studios in Kinuta the shopping street looked fully prepared for the Honorable Death of the Hundred Million. The atmosphere was tense, panicked. There were even shopowners who had taken their Japanese swords from their sheaths and sat staring at the bare blades.
However, when I walked the same route back to my home after listening to the imperial proclamation, the scene was entirely different. The people in the shopping street were bustling about with cheerful faces as if preparing for a festival the next day. I don’t know if this represents Japanese adaptability or Japanese imbecility. In either case, I have to recognize that both these facets exist in the Japanese personality. Both facets exist within my own personality as well.
If the Emperor had not delivered his address urging the Japanese people to lay down their swords—if that speech had been a call instead for the Honorable Death of the Hundred Million—those people on that street in Soshigaya probably would have done as they were told and died. And probably I would have done likewise. The Japanese see self-assertion as immoral and self-sacrifice as the sensible course to take in life. We were accustomed to this teaching and had never thought to question it.
I felt that without the establishment of the self as a positive value there could be no freedom and no democracy. My first film in the post-war era, Waga seishun ni kui nashi (No Regrets for Our Youth), takes the problem of the self as its theme.
I guess that explains it as best as I can hope for. Still, it’s hard for me to understand and accept the “Honorable Death of the Hundred Million,” the whole fight-to-the-death scenario. How can you be so willing to lose everything and destroy everything and everyone in your own nation strictly out of pride? Well, perhaps I’d understand it better if I’d lived in a society that had been isolated from the rest of the world for 250 years and had only relatively recently (about eight decades earlier) come out of that isolation. Ironically, the things I value most about Japanese culture seem to be those which are rooted in that isolation and insularity. The anime I like, the films, the art, the literature, and the pop music I listen to are best to me when they’re most Japanese and less like anything from the west. Yet the same culture that produced the things I love also gave us Pearl Harbor, the Rape of Nanking, and the Bataan Death March. As well as the concept of the Honorable Death of the Hundred Million, which might have led to the near-extermination of the Japanese people. How many filmmakers I revere, as well as future filmmakers, animators, writers, artists and singers in Japan would have survived all that—if any? I have a hard time reconciling all of this. (On a personal note, had the Japanese not surrendered, my father, a Marine Corps drill instructor during the war, would have been sent to Japan for the planned invasion. Who knows what my fate would have been? So I have some stake in this.)
Do Kurosawa’s wartime activities and his postwar turnaround have any counterpart in the careers of any Hollywood filmmaker of equal stature? Well, yes they do. John Ford served in the Navy and directed the wartime propaganda documentaries THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY and DECEMBER 7TH, and one combat movie about the Pacific War, THEY WERE EXPENDABLE, which came out a few months after the war. And just as Kurosawa evidently had a change of thinking after the war, one can argue that Ford’s postwar cavalry western, FORT APACHE (1948), started to deconstruct the hallowed image of U.S. military hero General Custer by portraying his fictional counterpart, Colonel Thursday, in a distinctly negative light. (Ford would later show Custer instigating a massacre of innocents in THE SEARCHERS, 1956.) Now that may be a bit of a stretch in comparison to the Kurosawa case, but a closer study of Ford’s postwar films might yield some more concrete examples. A joint study of Ford and Kurosawa through the prism of their wartime experiences and the aftermath would be useful.
In light of this parallel, Kurosawa tells an interesting story in his autobiography of an encounter with Ford:
Just as things were progressing smoothly on Tiger’s Tail, Japan lost the war and the U.S. Army came to occupy the country.
It came to pass that from time to time American soldiers visited the set where I was shooting. One day a whole landing party of them converged on my set. Maybe the customs being shown in my production struck them as quaint, I don’t know. At any rate, they clicked away with their still cameras or buzzed away with 8-mm cameras, and some even wanted to be photographed while being slashed at with a Japanese sword. Things got so out of hand I had to call a halt to the day’s shooting.
On another such occasion I was up on top of the soundstage setting up an overhead shot when a group of admirals and high-ranking commissioned officers came onto the set. They were remarkably quiet as they observed the shooting and departed, and later I found out that the movie director John Ford had been among them. It was he himself who told me this years later when I met him in London, and I was amazed. Apparently he had asked my name at the time and left a message of greeting for me. “Didn’t you receive it?” he asked. But I had of course not received it, nor did I have any idea that John Ford had ever visited a movie set of mine until that day I met him in England.
Which raises the question: whatever happened to that 8mm footage of Kurosawa at work? How many footlockers in storage around the U.S. are filled with someone’s grandfather’s old film reels? In any event, for more on Kurosawa’s regard for Ford, I found this on IMDB:
Kurosawa worshipped legendary American director John Ford, his primary influence as a filmmaker. When the two met, Ford was uncommonly pleasant to the younger Japanese filmmaker and after wards Kurosawa dressed in a similar fashion to Ford when on film sets.
And here’s what Kurosawa says about Ford in the preface to his autobiography:
There is one more person I feel I would like to resemble as I grow old: the late American film director John Ford. I am also moved by my regret that Ford did not leave us his autobiography. Of course, compared to these two illustrious masters, Renoir and Ford, I am no more than a little chick.
Kurosawa wound up marrying Yoko Yaguchi, the actress who plays Watanabe in THE MOST BEAUTIFUL. As he says in his autobiography, “Later it came to pass that I married the girl who played the leader of the girls’ volunteer corps, Yaguchi Yoko. At that time she represented the actresses and frequently came to argue with me on their behalf. She was a terribly stubborn and uncompromising person, and since I am very much the same, we often clashed head on.” They were married for forty years, until her death in 1985.
One more casting note: the actor who plays the supervisor at the factory should look familiar to all those who are fans of Kurosawa and Godzilla:
That’s right, it’s Takashi Shimura, the then-future star of THE SEVEN SAMURAI and GOJIRA.
I don’t know that I’ve seen any other Japanese film or TV episode that covers quite the same subject as THE MOST BEAUTIFUL. Only in the animated film, GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (1988), do I find a close reference. The film is about an adolescent boy and his little sister who are orphaned by the war and forced to live with an aunt who constantly berates them. The children’s cousin is a teenage girl who goes off to work every day at a war plant, just like the girls in THE MOST BEAUTIFUL.
Finally, in looking for a counterpart in the Japanese audience of someone there experiencing American wartime propaganda after the war, I offer a hypothetical John Wayne fan who goes to a Tokyo theater in 1946 and enjoys Wayne’s western, TALL IN THE SADDLE (1944), which was one of the first American films to be shown in theaters in Japan after the end of the war. When Wayne’s war films, FLYING TIGERS, THE FIGHTING SEABEES, BACK TO BATAAN, THEY WERE EXPENDABLE, and THE SANDS OF IWO JIMA, got shown in Japan, some of them many years later, what must this fan have thought? I wonder if any Japanese author or critic has written about this. Of course, Wayne also made a film in Japan, THE BARBARIAN AND THE GEISHA (1958), in which he played the first United States Consul to Japan, Townsend Harris. That might have provided this fan some compensation.