The Most Beautiful (一番美しく, Akira Kurosawa, 1944)

“One can’t improve productivity without improving one’s character” the manager of a factory crafting lenses for the military repeatedly insists, though by “character” he largely seems to mean a total erasure of the self in favour of service to the state. Kurosawa’s second feature is a National Policy Film intended to foster a spirit of patriotic fervour in which not only the factory girls at its centre but everyone else too must “become an outstanding human being” forgoing all human feeling to ensure Japan will win a war even the film seems to concede is already lost. 

Indeed, even for a relatively late propaganda film, The Most Beautiful (一番美しく, Ichiban Utsukushiku) makes little attempt to gloss over the undercurrent of defeat. At one point names of foreign territories fallen to the Americans briefly flash up on the screen leaving the girls looking increasingly bereft if resolving to work even harder. Then again even in the opening which sees all the workers lined up in military fashion it’s obvious that the factory is staffed by those who have not been deployed to more pressing duties, overwhelmingly teenage girls along with boys too young for the army, old men and those otherwise unable to serve in the military. 

Even so the atmosphere among the young women is often cheerful though the film is keen to show them overcoming their loneliness while bowing to photos of their far off parents, often farmers, in distant parts of Japan. They are looked after by a kind of nurse/chaperone, Mrs Mizushima (Takako Irie) whose husband has already been killed in the war marking her out as an example of the self-sacrifice that is being asked of the girls. Many of them have come of their own volition expressly to support the war effort and take their work incredibly seriously especially as the factory manager reminds them that the lenses they make are crucial to to production of military instrumentation and without them there would be no fighter planes or sniper rifles. 

So self-sacrificing are they that the girls go into huff when it’s announced that the factory will be entering a period of increased productivity (another thinly veiled hint that the war is not going well), yet they are upset not because they resent being asked to work harder, nor by the implication that they have more to give than they have been giving, but by the fact they’ve been underestimated having had their quotas increased by only 50% as opposed to the men’s 100%. Their leader, Watanabe (Yoko Yaguchi), explains that, though they know they cannot match the men, they are sure they can do better and will produce at least 2/3 more rather than just half. The managers seem to think that this is naive, but are wary of talking the girls down in fear of damaging their morale which they see as the most crucial thing when it comes to generating “productivity”. Yet that notion of “morale” is mostly a kind of internecine peer pressure brokered by petty competition and a desire not to be the one who lets everyone else down. Hence the girls continue working while they’re sick, which is no good at all for productivity if all they do is spread it around while unable to work at full capacity, afraid to tell anyone in case they get sent home to recover. 

Watanabe is tempted to to take a trip to see her family after receiving a letter from her father to say that her mother has been taken ill, though her parents are also fiercely patriotic and insist that she should not leave but stay and do her duty. She is guilted out of her temptation by another girl, Yamaguchi (Shizuko Yamaguchi), who is sickly by nature but has been hiding her suffering in order to be allowed to stay. Being out of the line fosters feelings of guilt and failure, not only in having let the country down but in increasing the burden on their friends who will now have to work harder in their stead. The “character” that they are supposed to be building, is in the end only in service of their “productivity” that they work to the point of collapse with no thought for themselves or their feelings wilfully sacrificing the opportunity to see dying relatives to prove their dedication. 

In what now might seem like subversive touches but just as well may have been sincere, Kurosawa often flashes signs and slogans which appear in the factory including one urging the girls to “follow the example of the war dead” suggesting that the only real way to prove your devotion is to die in the service of the emperor. On the other hand, the girls don’t actually seem to do a lot of factory work but are otherwise expected to participate in band practice banging out military marches on the drum or else improving their physicality through playing volleyball. In any case as they begin wear themselves out tempers begin to fray leaving the girls at odds, tired and resentful if not actively hopeless in beginning to realise they probably won’t make their overly ambitious quota as a tacit acceptance that Japan most likely is not going to win the war and all their efforts are for nothing. At the film’s conclusion, Mrs Mizushima exclaims that Watanabe has become “such a good girl”, ironically forced to abandon the directly filial for the national in prioritising her role as an imperial daughter rather than a biological one. Even so, the film discovers a much more comfortable sense of solidarity between the young women even if brokered by militarist fervour and a nihilistic bid for self-destruction in perpetual servitude. 


The Most Beautiful screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 1st & 9th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

The Demon (鬼畜, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1978)

By the late 1970s Japan had achieved its economic miracle, but it had yet perhaps to deal with the traumas of the immediate post-war era. Once again adapted from a story by Seicho Matsumoto, Yoshitaro Nomura’s shocking social drama The Demon (鬼畜, Kichiku) explores the radiating effects of orphanhood and economic privation on the family unit producing as a rather judgemental policeman eventually puts it a generation of parents who don’t know how to raise children and may even lack the inclination to do so even if thankfully not to the extent of the couple at the film’s centre.

Nomura opens with one of his trademark lengthy train sequences following a harried mother and her three children travelling in the sweltering heat from the countryside to the city as she makes a last, desperate attempt to remind the father, Sokichi Takeshita (Ken Ogata), of his responsibilities. Once a successful businessman, Sokichi has become financially ruined after a fire destroyed his print shop and no longer has the means to maintain a second household for his mistress and children at a discrete distance from the home he shares with his wife, Oume (Shima Iwashita). As Kikuyo (Mayumi Ogawa) points out to him, she is unable to support herself economically while caring for the children but he has little answer for her especially once the previously oblivious Oume overhears their conversation. After a series of heated arguments, Kikuyo makes the radical decision to simply abandon the children with their father and thereafter disappears having vacated her previous home and left no forwarding address. 

A part of the problem in the Takeshitas’ marriage had been that they have no children of their own, Sokichi remarking to Kikuyo, whom he met while she was working in a traditional teahouse where he used to take clients, that he had always wanted a child. Conventional gender roles have in a sense been reversed, Oume angrily insisting that her husband would never have made any money had not been for her while it appears that she is more or less in charge of their business affairs and he is the one largely looking after the children to the extent that they are “looked after”. To Oume, the siblings are partly a reminder that her husband betrayed her with another woman but also an attack on her femininity in reminding her that she was unable to become a mother while someone else has given birth to Sokichi’s children. For all of these reasons they are to her children which cannot continue to exist. She undermines Sokichi’s attachment to them by frequently questioning their paternity pointing out that they share little physical resemblance while reminding him that he met Kikuyo through her occupation on the fringes of the sex trade. 

Her mistreatment begins as neglect, refusing to feed or bathe “a stranger’s” child and then graduates to physical violence stuffing food into the mouth of Sokichi’s infant son Shoji after catching him playing with the dinner bowls. Yet when Sokichi finds her endangering the baby while moving heavy papers from a shelf he does nothing, suspecting his wife has become a threat to the children’s safety but also as she later implies wanting to be rid of them himself. The couple could, of course, have simply surrendered the children to an orphanage (it remains unclear how exactly their existence has been registered), but ultimately choose not to as if they wanted to obliterate the idea of them as if they had never been born. 

It may be tempting to view Sokichi as a helpless victim casting Oume as terrifying Lady Macbeth intimidating him into destroying the evidence of his indiscretion, but even if it was Sokichi “looking after” the children, it is finally he who must also “take care” of them. During his abandonment of his second child, 3-year-old daughter Yoshiko (Miyuki Yoshizawa), he takes her into a toy store where a group of boys are playing with remote control cars demonstrating that this is no longer an age of economic privation and that in the end the reason for the children’s second abandonment is not primarily financial even if Sokichi has been in a sense humbled, deluded into a false sense of security in his business success only to be robbed of the era’s increasing prosperity through a freak accident. “Everybody’s struggling” he eventually reflects as his assistant (Keizo Kanie) informs him that he is leaving, ironically to take better care of his ageing parents and small children presumably in a less toxic environment.

Yet as we discover the reasons for Sokichi’s sense of displacement stem back to his own post-war childhood, apparently born out of wedlock never knowing his father and then abandoned by his mother, bounced around between relatives all of them poor who viewed him as nothing more than a burden until effectively indentured to a print shop at ten years old by an uncle who stole his advance pay and once again abandoned him. These kinds of familial disruptions whether caused by a literal orphanhood or the economic constraints of the immediate post-war period have produced according to the moralising policeman at the film’s conclusion a generation of people who do not know how to parent because they were not effectively parented themselves many of whom go on to have children perhaps accidentally but have no idea how to relate to them, frightened of the responsibility or resentful of the “burden” as Sokichi eventually seems to have become. 

Nevertheless, Nomura ends on a note of ambiguity, the goodness in eldest son Riichi (Hiroki Iwase) emphasised as he refuses to name his father or reveal his abuse, an action interpreted by the police as an attempt to protect Sokichi but could equally be a trauma response owing to have been returned to him by the police once before. In any case the film asks if in being rescued from his toxic family circumstances, effectively orphaned, Riichi will simply end up continuing the cycle of displacement, another man unable to become a “father”. But then again, what of Kikuyo who branded Sokichi “inhuman” yet left her children with him and disappeared, perhaps as a neighbour implies with another man? A sympathetic policewoman (Shinobu Otake) reassures Riichi they’ll look for his mother, but as she too abandoned him would that actually help? The jury seems to be out on whether this sense of displacement, in essence the integrity of the traditional family, can ever effectively be repaired even as an increasingly consumerist society continues to erode its foundations. 


The Demon screens at the BFI on 12/19 December as part of BFI Japan. It is also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Ginza Cosmetics (銀座化粧, Mikio Naruse, 1951)

1951’s Ginza Cosmetics (銀座化粧, Ginza Kesho) is often said to mark a kind of rebirth in the career of director Mikio Naruse whose output in the 1940s was perhaps unfairly denigrated not least by Naruse himself. As in much of his golden age work and in anticipation of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Ginza’s heroine is a resilient bar hostess whose brief hopes of escape through romance are doomed to failure, but it’s also, like the slightly later Tokyo Profile (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1953) and Tales of Ginza (Yuzo Kawashima, 1955) an ode to the upscale district and all the defeated hopes of its illusionary glitz and glamour. 

Yukiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), the heroine, is a single-mother approaching middle age and working as a hostess in a Ginza bar. Her landlady who runs a nagauta school on the ground floor and constantly complains about her feckless though goodnatured unemployed husband seems to think she could do better, pointing out that she is an educated woman who seems slightly out of place in the rundown backstreets of this otherwise aspirational area. Even for educated women, however, there may not be many other opportunities in the straitened and socially conservative post-war economy especially for those without connections, and Yukiko also needs to provide for her young son Haruo (Yoshihiro Nishikubo), born out of wedlock after an affair with a customer with whom she had fallen in love but abandoned her when she became pregnant. 

As a slightly older woman who has been working at the Bel Ami bar for many years, seemingly from war to occupation, Yukiko is both looked up to by the younger women and resented as a stern older sister who does not approve of the way some of them ply their trade. She’s taken one, Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa), who often babysits for her, under her wing, cautioning her against making the same mistakes that she once made in taking the kinds of men that come into the bar at their word. “Men are all animals” she warns her, supporting her desire not to give in to her parents’ attempts to arrange for her not a marriage but a “position” as a mistress. Unlike Yukiko, Kyoko still has hope of leaving the Ginza bar world behind to become a respectable wife even if those hopes are fading with the relative unlikelihood of finding a “good” man with a salary good enough to support a wife who is not already married and can be understanding of her bar girl past. 

The bar world may be on the fringes of the sex trade, but the bar girls are not necessarily sex workers even if some of the younger women are clearly engaging in the kinds of casual sex work of which Yukiko clearly disapproves even while not against consensual romantic liaisons. For her own part, she finds herself in the awkward situation of a continuing non-relationship with a failed businessman, Fujimura (Masao Mishima), who was fairly wealthy during the war but apparently no longer. Yukiko attributes this to him being in someway too good to prosper, though having money in the war which disappeared afterwards perhaps implies the opposite. She does not love him and seems to find his presence a little irritating, but feels indebted because he stood by her when she was pregnant and alone. In any case, he has a wife (whom he apparently resents) and children (whom he claims to adore) and so she feels at best conflicted, especially as the tables have turned and it’s him now constantly asking her for money. Money is not something Yukiko has a lot of, but she isn’t mean and often consents to losing it with a resigned shrug as she does by taking on Kyoko’s bar debt after a customer runs out on the bill and then tricks Yukiko into buying more drinks while waiting for a “friend” to arrive. 

Men, it seems, will always be predatory and unreliable. On hearing from her boss and longtime friend that the bar is in trouble and may have to close, Yukiko ends up acting on an introduction from an acquaintance, Shizue (Ranko Hanai), to meet a “stingy” industrialist who had expressed an interest in her. Shizue has escaped the bar world by becoming a wealthy man’s mistress and with it has claimed a kind of independence. He splits his time between Tokyo and Osaka, leaving her free to do whatever she likes (including meeting other men) for most of her time with none of the strings that go with being a wife. Yukiko is perhaps too “pure” for that kind of arrangement, hinting at the Ginza paradox that only those who learn to accept a certain level of complicity can ever truly be happy there. She agrees to meet Kanno (Eijiro Tono), the businessman, in order to ask him to “invest” in the bar, suggesting they talk things over in a coffeeshop while he tries to pull her into various shady establishments before pushing her into a warehouse and attempting to rape her to get his money’s worth. Yukiko escapes and resolves not to see him again. After all, the point of getting the money to keep the bar open was precisely to avoid having to make arrangements with men like Kanno. 

It’s Shizue, however, who later gives her a last shot at escape when she introduces her to her “true love”, Ishikawa (Yuji Hori), making a brief trip into the city. Shizue can’t entertain him herself because her patron is in town and so entrusts him to Yukiko with the strict instruction not to try it on. Despite herself, however, Yukiko becomes fond of him, reassuming something of a past persona in engaging in intellectual conversation, once again an educated, middle-class woman rather than a bar hostess used to telling men what they want to hear. She has been warned, however, that Ishikawa hates anything “low culture” which is why Shizue has told him they are both war widows and discovers that he has a strong dislike for Ginza which sees him longing for the wholesome charms of home. 

The crisis occurs when Yukiko has to break a promise to Haruo to take him to the zoo in order to look after Ishikawa, causing him to go temporarily missing when he wanders off on his own roaming all over the endless construction site of the contemporary city standing in for the makeshift, in-progress reconstruction of the post-war society. She perhaps feels she’s being punished for choosing to disappoint her son in order to pursue a dream of romantic escape she might also feel is somehow undeserved, but pays in quite a different way after accidentally setting Ishikawa up with Kyoko whom she introduced as her “sister”. Originally angry and resentful, proclaiming herself disappointed with Kyoko in assuming she is the same as the other young women at the bar, Yukiko’s good nature eventually wins out as she realises that Kyoko and Ishikawa seem to have fallen in love in a single night. She has told him everything, and he apparently wants to marry her anyway. Kyoko, at least, is getting out, and Yukiko can be happy about that while privately internalising defeat. Acknowledging that Haruo is the only one on whom she can depend, she resolves to live on as a mother only, trapped in the deceptive diminishing returns of a Ginza bar life even while knowing it has increasingly little place for her.  


Battle of Roses (薔薇合戦, Mikio Naruse, 1950)

Mikio Naruse was famously unhappy with most of his ’40s work, believing that his career did not begin to revive until the release of Ginza Cosmetics in 1951. The late ‘40s were indeed a difficult time in terms of the industry as Naruse’s home studio, Toho, became entrenched in a series of labour disputes which eventually led to the creation of new studio “Shin Toho” (lit. “new Toho”). Naruse meanwhile though sympathetic to the cause kept a low profile working in theatre and thereafter with other studios such as Shochiku which is where he made 1950’s Battle of Roses (薔薇合戦, Bara Kassen) .

Perhaps because of its turbulent production genesis, Battle of Roses is a distinctly unpolished and surprisingly reactionary take on female liberation adapted from a newspaper serial following the lives of three sisters pursuing different paths in the complicated post-war society. The action opens with the death of the husband of the eldest sister, Masago (Kuniko Miyake), who had been the head of cosmetics studio White Lily but is currently under-investigation for large-scale embezzlement of which it appears he is almost certainly guilty. After he dies, Masago inherits the company but is pursued by massive debts to the film’s villain, Mogi (Toru Abe), who is also after the most pure hearted of the sisters, Hinako (Setsuko Wakayama). Masago makes some kind of shady arrangement with her husband’s former associate Kasahara (Eitaro Shindo), pays off the debt, and starts her own rival company Nigera where she is the CEO. Youngest sister Chisuzu (Yoko Katsuragi), meanwhile, also works at Nigera but is a fully modern woman who wants “to be free and know everything about life”, resentful of her sister’s authority and planning to move out into her own apartment where she later begins a “trial” marriage with Ejima (Shiro Osaka), a journalist from Fashion and Films magazine who turns out to be no good at all.

The sisters are each, in a sense, punished for a perceived naivety in the way they pursue their goals, the implication being that they are mere women thrown unprepared into a male world they lack the skills to navigate. This is most obviously true of Masago who is shown to be a surprisingly astute business woman but a bad judge of character while also criticised for wielding her femininity by leveraging her business affairs through Kasahara who nevertheless declares that he wants to keep their business and personal relationships separate which is why the original loan comes with interest. Masago then gives an accountancy job to her inexperienced boyfriend who proves up to it, but also creates tension in the office seeing as she is unwilling to go public about their relationship even after they agree to marry while he remains resentful of Kasahara.

After spotting her with Mogi who continues to pursue her despite her obvious dislike of him, Masago contrives to have Hinako marry a trusted assistant, Hinatsu (Mitsuo Nagata), pushing her into a marriage against her will to prove her sisterly loyalty while Hinako herself has taken a liking to divorced advertising executive Sonoike (Koji Tsuruta) who is the film’s only real “good” man. Hinatsu, however, turns out to be less reliable than Masago thought, resentful that his marriage to Hinako while guaranteeing continued employment has actually adversely affected his career prospects with Masago unwilling to promote him for fear of claims of nepotism. To avoid “ending up like Hinako”, Chisuzu agrees to a weird quasi-marriage with Ejima in which she insists that they live separately so that he won’t “meddle” in her life because “men only want to stay in a superior position”.

Chisuzu is later taken to task for attempting a take a “male” role in terms of her sexual agency, Ejima’s wife (Noriko Sengoku) suddenly turning up with a child on her back to refer to her husband as a “male mistress” and demand money from Chisuzu who has already been guilted into handing over vast sums to Ejima to prove her love. Ejima later threatens to blackmail the whole family with a tell all book detailing what he’s learned about the “immoral” lives of the three sisters behind Nigera cosmetics. Meanwhile, Hinako’s marriage has also gone south the extent that Hinatsu eventually tries to steam her to death by locking her in the bathroom and stoking up the fire only to think better of it in the nick of time, causing her a miscarriage and landing her in the hospital for three months during which Sonoike continues to send her flowers while Hinatsu struggles to understand why she might not want to accompany him on the job transfer he is forced to accept after he’s discovered to have committed fraud while having an affair with a woman from sales.

Hinako is punished, essentially, for excessive womanliness in trying to make everyone happy by suppressing her own feelings, rejecting her agency in deference to her sister who is punished for being too “manly” in business while Chisuzu is punished for being sexually liberated and behaving “like a man” in terms of her desire to maintain romantic independence. Sonoike’s ex-wife is seemingly punished for the same thing, desperately trying to win her husband back after cheating on him but is rejected for her transgression in her foolishness at being taken in by a faithless man. The sisters are forced to acknowledge the mistakes they’ve made, making a fresh start with more humble ambitions pushed back towards the feminine norms, e.g. a “small shop” for Masago rather than a big company while Chisuzu returns “home”. Only Hinako is given the possibility of a more positive future in seizing her own agency to follow her heart’s desire, ending her marriage to the adulterous Hinatsu and perhaps finally entering a romance with the patient Sonoike. Somewhat different in style from typical Naruse with its shorter scenes echoing fast paced city life, inelegant cuts and abrupt scene transitions, Battle of Roses lands less as a condemnation of male manipulation and duplicity than a subtle implication that women aren’t equipped for independence and are best defended by “good” men, Sonoike on hand to sort out each of the women’s problems with rational calm, even while offering the sisters the possibility of starting over once the storm has passed.