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Triumph of The Past

by Michael Lane

Girl Power: Kurosawa's The Most Beautiful

The Most Beautiful (86 min.) is Kurosawa's most neglected film, because it is a patriotic Japanese film made in 1944. It's only on a Hong Kong DVD that is hard to obtain and has subtitles in a strange language that cannot be called English. It features such howlers as, "What is the hell today? Why am I nervous?" and "The pets run and tell the joys." It routinely calls lenses "mirrors" and girls "he." Since so much of a Kurosawa movie is in the powerful dialogue, the non-Japanese speaker is severely hampered when it comes to understanding key moments of this film. We don't even know the girls' names, because the subtitles render them in ugly, monosyllabic Chinese equivalents. The film quality is also not very good in places. Yet this is a wonderful movie.

With this movie, Kurosawa for the first time tried something that became his regular practice. He had his cast live together during preproduction and shooting, using only their character names:

He had them live in the real factory's dormitory. They were sent off to different sections of the plant to learn how to use its equipment, and he had them organize a fife-and-drum corps . . . and parade around the factory grounds. . . . The experiment was a success. "Their makeup lost its artificiality," Kurosawa wrote, "and at first glance, and even at a harder second look, they appeared to be in all respects a healthy, active group of ordinary girls."1

One of these girls, the lead actress, he subsequently married.

The Story

Tokyo, 1944, late summer. A lens factory, where are made "weapons of light." Teenage girls have bravely left home to come here to make their contribution to the war effort. Each girl is responsible for a bank of machines. They live at the Campus of Light, a dormitory/school within walking distance of the factory. Their education consists of the Confucian catechism, patriotism, and music. Every day they parade the streets with their fife-and-drum marching band. They have a vegetable garden, in which each has mixed a bit of soil from home. They sleep two to a room under the care of Teacher, a young widow who knows their deepest feelings and fears and loves them like a mother. There is a head girl called Tao in the subtitles. She doesn't work on the factory floor. She works in a quiet room, checking lenses with a microscope. She is very serious. All the girls look up to her. We later learn that her mother is dying.

As the film opens, the workers are lined up in the yard. The Chief, via loudspeaker, gives a vigorous speech announcing a four-month-long production drive and encouraging them to do their best for their country's sake. The men's goal will be a 10% increase in production, the women's half of that.

As the male bosses walk the floor, girls talking in knots scurry back to their machines. The bosses talk to Tao and learn that the hubbub is about the new goals: the girls want their goal increased. Tao obtains this for them, and they cheer her.

After lunch, they return to the Campus of Light on the march, singing their patriotic song. In this exalted mood, still tramping their feet, they surround Teacher and sing loud. Before band practice, they go to their rooms and greet photos of their parents. After one girl gives the usual quick greeting, her roommate, called in the subtitles Kong, says, "You make people jealous." She gazes at her parents' photos and a brushed Chinese character, "mother," for a long time.

The girls work hard at their machines, eager to meet their goal.

A health report comes through identifying one girl, called both Hou and Shan in the subtitles and whom I will call Hou-Shan, as being sick. The girls playfully chase her down to make her take her temperature. That night, the anniversary of her husband's death, Teacher looks in on her charges asleep. She tucks Kong's arm under the cover and smoothes her hair. As Teacher leaves the room, Kong opens her eyes and looks at her parents' photo and "mother" again, and a tear falls. This, together with the "jealous" comment, makes me wonder if she hasn't lost her mother.

While the band is out drilling, one girl, called Ling in the subtitles, is sick in bed. She begs Teacher not to tell her parents she's sick, but it is too late. She fears they will send for her, and she doesn't want to leave.

The girls are assembled to say goodbye to Ling. It is very sad. The kind music teacher gives her her flute to take with her, a hope that she will return soon. All the girls cry because they will miss Ling and also because they miss their own homes. The man who is driving her to the station fumbles and looks uncomfortable amidst all this female energy.

Rest day. Another Shan (as distinguished from the one I call Hou-Shan), is standing on the roof, looking at Mt. Fuji and thinking of home. Her roommate, with whom she was talking, leaves the window a moment, and when she comes back, Shan is on the ground. There is another goodbye. With two girls gone, spirits are low, and productivity lags.

Outside, they are having a huddle around their big drums. Tao's lieutenant, whose name is never given but whom I call Sailor Suit, is anxious about the work goals. Kong says, "It's not about face. It's a question of responsibility." They watch planes pass overhead. Kong gets into her stride and exclaims: "Don't quarrel with our friends! It's most important to increase the productivity! That aeroplane is also carrying our products!" and punctuates her little speech with a whack on the drum. Everybody laughs, breaking the tension, and the old dorm worker -- one of the few sympathetic male characters -- says she sounds just like the Chief. Only serious Tao does not laugh.

The old dorm worker takes Tao aside and encourages her to provide the girls some relaxation. Next thing you know, they are playing volleyball. Action shots of happy, competitive faces. Hou-Shan is scorekeeper.

The hard, cold winter is coming. Tao receives a letter from her father praising her sacrifice and telling her not to worry about mother. This makes her worry, and she goes to see Teacher. Teacher is out. Spying a train timetable, Tao impulsively looks for the next train home, then thinks better of it. Hou-Shan comes in with a thermometer, and Tao makes her show it. It is low. Tao suspects her and makes her take it again (under her arm). Minutes pass, and then Hou-Shan bursts into tears, confesses she has a fever every day, and begs Tao to keep her secret so she won't be sent home like Ling. Teacher returns, and Tao lies about Hou-Shan's temperature.

Close-ups of sixteen girls intent at their machines. Productivity is up.

Shan has come back with a cast on her foot and crutches. The band marches to meet her at the station. A happy reunion.

Time passes. The dorm worker and Teacher are worried about the girls. It's hard to keep up the pace of the production drive. They are tired, don't laugh anymore. Their hands are burnt from the hot machines.

Out on the production floor, we see them, listless and sluggish. Hou-Shan is feverish. A girl called by the subtitles Fok speaks a sharp word to Kong, though I can't make out what it's about. Then a squeak sends the girls flying to see whose machine it is. If a girl forgets to turn her water on, a machine can get hot and break. A girl, called in the subtitles Tin, bursts into tears before her broken machine.

At volleyball, Kong gets cross at Fok and walks off. Productivity lags. Teacher has a letter from Ling. She gets the boss's leave to visit Ling's home and try to persuade her parents to let her return, now she is well. Teacher thinks it will boost morale. She wants to leave immediately to catch the next train and tells the boss to just give Tao the letter, and Tao will mind the girls in her absence.

On the factory floor, Kong upbraids Tin, who has once again forgot to turn her water on. Fok gets angry at Kong, which makes Kong drop and break something. Fok says, "You watch out!" In a land where harmony and face are deeply ingrained, this rupture is very serious. Teacher is already gone. A girl whom I call Big Girl interrupts Tao at her microscope to tell her there's been a fight.

Tao is presiding over a formal mediation, with all the girls present. Kong accuses Tao of playing favorites, indicating Hou-Shan. Others have noticed it, too, and Tao has no answer, so Hou-Shan herself stands and reveals her secret. Sailor Suit wants Tao to make a ruling about the fight, but Tao says she cannot, for she herself is disgraced, hinting at something undisclosed. Instead of making a ruling, she begins to read Ling's letter.

Kong slips out into the garden to be alone with her thoughts and looks at the moon. Then she hears a stifled sob behind her. It is Fok. Each blames herself for the fight, and they are reconciled. We see their bare feet in the garden, and an overvoice picks up Ling's letter, mentioning the soil of home.

As the overvoice continues, it is day, and we see the bright, snowy landscape of Ling's village. Boys skiing down a hill and, coming from the opposite direction, Teacher on foot. Her ears pick up the sound of Ling's flute, a little motif we heard earlier when she was given the flute.

About midnight. The girls are still up. Ling announces her return with a little dance, but something is wrong. They need to see Teacher. Now we find out what Tao's "disgrace" was. When Big Girl interrupted Tao to tell about the fight, Tao mislaid an unchecked lens. She is still at the microscope, hunting for it among all the lenses that were passed that day.

Her neck hurts, her eyes are tired, it is very cold. She sings their patriotic song to keep alert, but as the hours pass, the song gets slower and slower. At about 3:00 a.m. she nods off, starts awake, says a little prayer toward her microscope, and resumes. Unbeknownst to her, the girls are up, too, singing a prayer for her in the garden.

Finally, she quits for the night. The bosses have waited to give her a ride back to the dorms so she can get some rest. Teacher has come, too. Teacher says in sweet, gentle tones, "Thank you, it must be freezing" and bundles Tao's neck with a scarf. At all this display of kindness, Tao's pent-up feelings can be contained no longer, and she bursts into tears like a little girl. She, too, needs a mother, misses her mother. She has been hating herself for misplacing that lens, yet she is loved.

Next day, the girls want Tao to share in the joy of Ling's return, but she is preoccupied, and they can see she has been crying. This is the first they would suspect of her private grief.

The production drive is near the end. The girls are working hard. The bosses and Teacher summon Tao to tell her her mother has passed away and encourage her to go home. But she refuses, saying, "No matter what happened, mum asked me not to go home for [mere] personal reasons." Then she confesses: "Teacher, please let [Hou-]Shan take a rest. She has a fever everyday." Tao exits, and Teacher observes with great feeling: "You are mature! I have been worried. Tao's personality is strong. I wish her to be more mild. However, she's now knowing how to be understanding."

Tao, at the microscope, can't see for her tears. We hear the girls voices singing a song, first softly, then stronger, whose words are, "Fresh green, bright green, sharp green, rich green!"

Thoughts

The factory makes "weapons of light," but Kurosawa's "weapon of light" is a movie camera. In the context of wartime censorship, the choice of innocent girls as a subject is interesting, because their patriotism is innocent. We don't expect them to critique power like Noge in No Regrets for Our Youth. In this way Kurosawa could stay out of trouble and at the same time make a movie whose characters he could love unreservedly. In their patriotism we see only youthful idealism and spirit, and the movie is really about youthful idealism and spirit. The bosses may think it is the war optics industry that makes the school a Campus of Light but we know it is the bright-souled girls.

The radical economy of presentation for which Kurosawa is famous is evident in this early film (he was only thirty-three) even in my verbal description: Ling is afraid she'll be sent home, and then she's saying goodbye; Shan is on the roof, and then she's on the ground, and then there's another goodbye; Teacher arrives at Ling's village, and then Ling returns; Hou-Shan tells Tao she has fever every day, and Kong accuses Tao of favoring her (we don't need to see Tao favoring her); Tao hints at her "disgrace," and the girls tell Teacher about the lost lens (we don't need to see Tao tell the girls).

All the girls are apart from their parents. In addition, Tao's mother is dying, and there seems to be a tragedy in Kong's life as well. Because of the death of her husband, Teacher is childless. So Teacher and the girls need each other.

What happens to one girl affects all. During the time of the production drive, four big crises arise: Ling's sickness and departure, the fight between Kong and Fok, Hou-Shan's sickness, and the lost lens. (Shan's injury and departure is a minor incident.) We see how these obstacles turn out to be good things that bring out unsuspected strengths in the girls.

Ling gets sent home because Teacher felt it was her responsibility to inform Ling's parents she was ill. Teacher's going to fetch Ling back makes her absent when the fight breaks out, so that Tao has to act as mediator. The mediation leads to the resolution of the fight but also to the clearing of the air about Hou-Shan and the revelation of the new crisis, the lost lens. Ling's return signals that Teacher is back just when she is most needed. Thus, these crises are resolved in order to strengthen the girls' solidarity to stand by their leader in her crisis, which they do by keeping vigil and singing a prayer for her – all her girls' voices joined in unison, no one missing, no resentments. It must have been a powerful prayer.

Tao doesn't find the lens, but something better happens. She can feel again. All this time this little girl has had to be the strong one for others. She could not allow herself private grief. Now that the dam has burst, the tears come readily, there's no stopping them. She is able to show weakness and grief and accept Teacher's love as surrogate mother.

It is this cleansed and strengthened girl who then receives the news of her mother's death. No rummaging the train timetable this time. She and her mother had in fact discussed this eventuality. What Tao does do is immediately confess to Teacher about Hou-Shan's fever and beg Teacher to let Hou-Shan rest (resolving the last crisis). Teacher then praises her. We sense that Teacher understands Tao's reason's for keeping Hou-Shan's fever a secret from her and that Tao is trusting Teacher to have learned from happened with Ling and to rest Hou-Shan, rather than worry her parents unnecessarily.

In the movie's final image, Tao is weeping for her mother and at the same time is soothed by hearing in her head the voices of her girls singing "Green." In the winter of her soul, Tao hears a song of spring.

Notes

1. Stuart Galbraith, The Emperor and the Wolf, p. 47f.

© Published by the Australian League of Rights, P.O. Box 27 Happy Valley, SA 5159