The inability to write about the films of Akira Kurosawa to my satisfaction led me to to take a different path: start at the beginning, take each film in sequence, one after the other, and watch the progression of the man from film-maker to Master. I'm hoping I can write more intelligently and more knowledgeably about his work by, step by step, Walking Kurosawa's Road.
The Most Beautiful (aka 一番美しく, aka Ichiban utsukushiku) (Akira Kurosawa, 1944) Kurosawa's second film as director was one I was willing to skip for its reputation as a documentary. That would have been a mis-step, as it's a curious combination of fiction and non-fiction—doing it's job, certainly, as a record of civilian efforts during the Japanese war effort, but Kurosawa used the documentary as a spine for a story about the workers, their motivations and their interaction, which did far more towards the purpose than merely showing parades and workers huddled over machines.
So, does that make it a documentary? Not really. Is any propaganda piece truly a documentary, or is it advocacy? Across the ocean, the Americans were making documentaries (by film-makers like Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, Darryl F. Zanuck, and George Stevens) that mixed real footage with special effects and dramatized scenes, so the issue seems moot, not even worth bringing up. But, it seems an essential piece of the Kurosawa puzzle.
Tasked with showing the efforts of the Nippon Kogaku optics factory in Hiratsuke that provided lenses for gunsights for Japanese Zeros (the original subject for the documentary, but shelved for budgetary reasons). The factory gave its full cooperation—the actors lived in the workers' dormitories and trained on their equipment. There are brief montages of the women workers at their jobs in the factory-settings and lots of shots of parading workers in formation with flags and instruments—a precision team showing off. There are lots of shots of that so the documentary aspect is satisfied.
But, that wasn't enough for Kurosawa. There's no story. The women working is "different" (certainly for that time) and inspiring; the parades, decorative. Fine for the results required by the government. But, all the parades in the world won't create a sense of sacrifice for the "common" man (or woman) to work towards victory; those are just pictures. What inspires those images? What creates the precision, the dedication required for the effort?
So Kurosawa weaves a story of one dormitory of women who are given a goal: prove yourselves. An emergency effort is set up for maximum performance: the men must put out 100% effort; the women, 50%. The women (respectfully) revolt. Why half the effort of the men, when they can do just as much? The factory relents, granting permission to push the limits and see what they can do. Emboldened, the women knuckle down and re-double the work.
But it comes at a cost. The health of the women suffer. One actually leaves, taken home by her strict father who fears for her safety. The support for her by her co-workers impresses him, and he bows in respect, but she leaves anyway.* Conflicts arise. The women begin to bicker over their relative efforts. But, the results are what matter, and the women win the respect of their peers, their supervisors and managers...and themselves.
Kurosawa once said The Most Beautiful is the film of his "closest to my heart." Whether that's because it's his favorite, or because it's where he met, directed, argued with on-set and married actress Yôko Yaguchi would be speculation.
* She returns later in the film, and prances around, giddy with her return, but the emotion is not met by her co-workers, who leave to see what happened to their supervisor, who journeyed to retrieve her. "It's good you're back, but get to work."