Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Review: The Most Beautiful

Version I Watched: Standard definition Eclipse series DVD as part of the First Films of Akira Kurosawa box set.

Starring: Takashi Shumura, Soji Kiyokawa, and Ichiro Sugai.

History: An original story written and directed by Akira Kurosawa, set up to as a propaganda film from the Japanese end (Obviously) during WWII. Kurosawa filmed at an actual factory in Hiratsuke and to get a better performance out of the actors he also had the actors live on the campus of the factory during filming. Since this was filmed during wartime there was a government order to save film which explains why there are no credits in the film aside from a title and 'The End.' Kurosawa would end up marrying Yoko Yaguchi, one of the actresses, shortly after filming. They would stay married until her death just under forty years later.

My Personal History: This was my first viewing. The box set was a Christmas present.

Review: Well here's something a bit different than my other reviews so far. Get used to it because I love Kurosawa's work and I've been meaning to get through the four disc box set I have for a long time. Not just that but I'm pretty into the early days of film as well. What fascinates me most about this film being born and raised in the States is it's a topic we see a lot but not from the perspective it's from. This was filmed during and the story is set during WWII but of course from the Japanese perspective. At it's most basic level the film is about a group of factory workers who get an emergency quota increase for a temporary amount of time because of a development in the war. What starts out as a pretty fun group of girls slowly downward spiral and become to succumb to the stress and fatigue the longer hours and more demanding work that comes with the new quota.

So I think I know what you may be thinking. It's a war film that was produced during the war and I've already stated it's considered a propaganda film. To answer your question there isn't really any sort of racism toward the other countries they were fighting aside from what you would expect. There's one line where they mention destroying America and Britain but that's the mindset at the time. I know how we felt about Japan during that time but from a modern perspective we sure love the hell out of their electronics (I love Playstation ^_^). So what this film does instead of bringing down the enemy to get their point across what was done was they glorified their country and their work ethic, and the work ethic among these girls is fantastic. At a level I couldn't possibly imagine. To point out how big of a commitment they have toward their work and country during this time of war is their response to the increase in quota. Their leader, Watanabe (Played by Yoko Yaguchi), goes to the management because she is requesting an even heavier work load. The men were given a 100% increase whereas the women were only given a 50% increase. Watanabe requests a 2/3 increase since she believes the girls she oversees are capable of such work. Up to this point in the film the only way we've seen the girls is in a fun and goofy way. They really act the way one would expect a group of young girls who look between the ages of late teens and early 20s would be. They are perky and fun! Also when they are first shown in the factory working they're hardly working. They're at their stations talking to each other and when they see their boss coming through the area they quickly jump back to work acting like they've been concentrating the whole time. It's great character development especially for when their life gets more stressful during the emergency quota and their attitude changes.

Sometimes it enhances a film to watch it under a certain context. An earlier Kurosawa film, Sanshuro Sugata, is interesting to watch knowing that the film was edited by 17 minutes shortly after it's initial release by the Japanese censors and it was unfortunately never recovered. So you're left watching the film wondering what was missing. What sort of character and story did it add and what was taken away by it not being there. Questions left unanswered by the cruelty of time and old school handles of film. This one doesn't quite have such a history but watching it under a certain context is helpful. I stated earlier that this film was shot in a real factory which Kurosawa used to given more of a documentary-like feel. It may be a case of how words are being used but I felt it gave it more of a realism factor instead of documentary but I suppose that's the same definition only using two words to describe it. Knowing it's a real factory instead of "WOW! That sure LOOKS like a factory" adds a lot to it. It's like the difference between using a real car and a real road for a car chase and crash sequence instead of using CG. It also enhances the realism factor knowing the girls lived in the actual dorms as well. It was super helpful because they look incredibly comfortable with each other and their surroundings. Lastly there's the fact that it's a film from the era it represents makes you feel like you are really there in the war instead of feeling like it's a representation of the war retrospectively.

So the quota gets bigger and the girls have a lot more work to handle. The big conflict that comes up is getting sick and unable to work. Speaking from an amazingly lazy American perspective the idea of getting a day off work especially during busy season can be the most incredible thing that can happen. Not for these girls. They are avoiding any chance of getting caught being sick. They truly know and feel the love for their country in the time of need. Their dedication does seem to come out of a sense of fear, though. The reason they don't want to get sick and go home to get better, or at least what I picked up on, was that it would have been shameful to wind up back home in this time of need. It is never made explicitly clear, or nothing I noticed. Yet this is how I felt it came across. The same sort of reaction comes from Watanabe much later in the film. She was working a long shift, was interrupted, and once she returned she was so tired that she misplaced the sight she was calibrating and then it was missing in and among 2,000+ sights. Her guilt was so strong she dedicated almost 24 hours straight with next to no breaks just to find it and properly calibrate it. The guilt she would gain from the idea that it may, not guaranteed to, but only may cause the lost lives of many soldiers drove her insane. Much like the last film I reviewed I'm sure there are tons of cultural things in this I'm not fully understanding. From my perspective I do wonder then if some of this dedication is out of fear or actual dedication. One of the girls has been running a fever for days but is trying to avoid their residential nurse from finding out so she doesn't have to go home. It's a situation where I'm not sure if they're actually dedicated or are just in fear of who would be disappointed in them. Watanabe is showing dedication because I know most people wouldn't want to take the risk of being responsible for someone else's death. However I'm not sure how many people would go dang near crazy trying to fix it even after their management told them to stop because they're double checked before use anyhow. If there's more details to educate me on things of this nature culturally please let me know. I'm curious.

This was a pretty neat look at the early years of a great film director. I wasn't that terribly immersed into it at first yet the second half was really engaging. I'm trying to think who this would specifically appeal to in this day and age. The reason it has stood the test of time is because of Kurosawa. If he wasn't as big of an influence on cinema as a whole this film may have been forgotten through the ages. Or maybe I don't know what I talk about and it could still be considered a classic. But since the film's availability was next to none until Criterion came into the picture with their hard on for Kurosawa and decided to release this and three other films together. So in short this is a pretty cool thing to see for Kurosawa fans to see where he started and what he was doing while still trying to develop what he would become famous for. Otherwise I would also send this the direction of history buffs. Depending where you're living chances are you're only seeing wars from one perspective. This film is a good chance to get a unique perspective of the biggest war in recent history.

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