DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum

Tuesday 25 October 2016

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum

Often regarded as revered Japanese master Kenji Mizoguchi’s first masterpiece, this pre-war picture personifies the poetic elegance of the ‘Mizoguchi-style’. An epic/tragic romance of a struggling actor and his supportive lover, Mizuguchi crafts a melodramatic love affair strained by the pressures of finance, class, family expectations and the demands of artistic life.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939) dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
Starring: Shôtarô Hanayagi, Kakuko Mori, Kôkichi Takada, Gonjurô Kawarazaki

By Alan Bacchus

Set in the late 1800’s, Kiku (Hanayagi) is the adopted son of a famous theatre actor Kikugoro – a man so revered he rules over his local company of actors like a despotic King Lear. Sadly, Kiku is a considerably lesser actor, who, because of his lineage, never receives the required criticism to improve, only jeers and giggles from behind his back. In a society so devoted to manners, the ridicule is excruciating for Kiku. Enter Otoku (Mori ) the wet nurse of his father’s new child, who courageously criticizes Kiku’s latest performance. Ironically he is smitten with Otoku’s candor as much as her beauty. They fall in love against the family wishes, eventually forcing Kiku to leave Tokyo and his family.

Kiku’s grand arc is the stuff great narrative drama. Think of the journeys of cinema’s greatest characters: Michael Corleone changing from an innocent kid reluctant to join the family business to a stone cold killer; T.E. Lawrence who starts out as an ambitious patriotic soldier on duty for his country to a near-mad zealot of the Arab peoples; or Charles Foster Kane, the idealistic newspaper baron, turned emotionally-inert egomaniac who longs for his lost childhood innocence. Mizoguchi’s compelling hero Kiku begins as a sad sack actor, belittled for his poor acting abilities, and dismissed in favour of his father’s new child by blood. In the second act, Kiku admirably turns the tables, estranging himself from his family embarking on a quest to achieve greatness in his art only to sell out his devoted wife and assimilate back into the arrogance of his father’s theatre, where he began.

The sublime Kakuko Mori doesn’t the let the prominence of Kiku’s character trump the importance and visibility of Otoku. The journey of Kiku is as much about Otoku’s honourable devotion to her husband. It’s a supremely tragic arc for her, capped off by the film’s moving climactic scene - on her deathbed with her family while Kiku parades his triumphant theatre troupe outside her window.

This is the stuff of great melodrama, but visualized with the highest level of cinematic/visual complexity. Mizoguchi was famous for his long takes, and in this picture there are number of hypnotic shots which elegantly and invisibly draw the viewer into the scenes. We can also point of Mizoguchi’s unique eye of composition, frequently placing his camera to frame in the corner of the room as the background instead of a flat wall. This enhanced depth of field predates the lauded Gregg Toland Hollywood pictures from ‘40/’41.

But it’s the emotional journey of poor Kiku and Otoku which makes this picture one of the greatest statements about the burden of artists and sacrifices required to succeed and be loved.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is available on Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection

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