In 1943, Akira Kurosawa’s debut film ‘Sanshiro Sugata’ was released. A very competent and very promising film, it contained elements of Japanese wartime propaganda. With his second film ‘The Most Beautiful’ (or ‘Ichiban Utsukushiku’ if you’re feeling particularly pretentious), those elements of propaganda were turned up to eleven.
The ‘plot’ takes place in a wartime factory, populated predominantly by female volunteers, producing optics for aircraft. There are various strands that run throughout the film. The quota of production that the women need to make goes up 50%, and so they complain. They wanted it to go up by two-thirds! Every little thing to help the mother nation. One women makes a faulty lens, and becomes distressed that she may cause a Japanese plane to crash. Another falls ill and is distraught, not for her own health, but that she cannot work for the greater good any longer. All the strands revolve around people desperate to work exceptionally hard for the Japanese war effort, the be all and end all of their lives.
There is nothing about the film indicative of Kurosawa’s work. Any visual tropes he had developed in Sanshiro Sugata, characteristic of his future work, are gone. There is no moving camera. There is no sense of thrill. The ‘drama’ is utterly bland and forgettable. It is the least beautiful Kurosawa I have seen.
The only entertainment comes from seeing the utterly hollow propaganda – one year from Japan’s defeat in the war – that is professed throughout the film. Before the film begins, a pre-title invites us to “Attack And Destroy The Enemy”. Which is nice of them. And later, when a group of women are singing uplifting songs to raise morale, the subtitles helpfully explain that they are vowing to “do our best to help to destroy America and Britain” and hoping that the enemy “disappear to the bottom of the sea”. How charming. Whilst this is amusing, it is laughing at the film rather than with it. So the film cannot be credited.
But even through the propaganda, it might have been possible to have an interesting study of female volunteer factory workers in Japan. But even then, nothing can be learned (other than that they existed) as the film feels so false.
Frankly, the only reason to watch The Most Beautiful is if you are a Kurosawa completist. And even then it should probably be the last one you watch.