“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.