Story of The Last Chrysanthemum (1939): A Traditional Japanese Epic

The_Story_of_the_Last_Chrysanthemum.jpgAkira Kurosawa is obviously known for samurai pictures — the famed chambara genre  — and Yasjiro Ozu is most sedulous when it comes to the relational bonds between parents and children in Japanese society. However, in some sense, of the so-called “Big-Three,” it is Kenji Mizoguchi who is most obviously attached to the Japanese tradition. I mean this in the way his visual style fluidly mirrors the range of Japanese arts.

The Story of The Last Chrysanthemum is a fascinating portrait because as with any early picture from a forthcoming master, it bears some of the marks that would come to define his career at its most sublime. Due to its availability, the subject matter, and the cinematography, it’s quite seamless to arrive at this extrapolation. Because this is a story set in the past and borrowing liberally from kabuki culture.

It’s also convenient to liken many of the uninterrupted takes to a constantly unfurling scroll. The art form obviously has deep roots in Japanese culture and Mizoguchi uses his camera in a similar manner to capture actions. The setups feel complex, especially for the day and age. Even with a print that proved less than stellar, there’s no ignoring the meticulous nature of the shots marked by invention and a highly novel mise-en-scene.

The beauty of these observations is that the director would only continue to evolve and mature with time. Staying away from close-ups means there’s this continual conveyance of a certain amount of distance. It’s not necessarily about not having an intimate relationship with the material, instead, it feels much more like we are given license to take in everything. We are given a very concrete position as a viewer ruminating in a piece of art.

I think of Ozu as being a master interior filmmaker. Much of the same might be said of his contemporary, though their methods are different. There is, of course, the prominent use of dolly shots you would never find in the other’s work. There is also a fluidity and a movement to Mizoguchi’s work, which nevertheless, should never be confused with the dynamicism of Kurosawa. It stands on its own individuality.

At the center of our story is a young stage performer named Kikunosuke, who is the adopted son of a famed actor and a hopeless performer hardly worthy of the family name. Everyone criticizes him behind his back: geishas, fellow actors, even his own father.

What’s worse, few are willing to give him the truth, instead offering him empty encouragement and stroking his ego. In fact, he’s only popular because of his bloodline; all the naysayers contemptuously note he’s riding on the coattails of his father’s glory. As a result, they’re either jealous of his good fortune or intent on using him to get ahead.

It frustrates him, rightfully so, and he wants to leave them all behind. Except there is one individual who is different: a young woman. Fittingly, Mizoguchi uses a fascinating shot to introduce their relationship. The woman stands, holding her charge, an infant child in her arms. They cross paths and begin to walk with one another. However, it’s the most curious perspective almost as we are in a trench following along as the man and woman have a normal walk-and-talk.

Otoku is the only person who will tell it to him straight and even this is indirect — merely hinted at. In English, we might call her a church mouse, the subservient one who is subsequently the only character bearing any sense. She goes ever further in her bashful yet concerted effort to encourage him. One day he might be something. It’s alright to enjoy the pleasures of life, but he is an artist and he should appreciate and hone his art.

Her behavior is scandalous in others’ eyes. Her indiscretions are deemed impertinent as she has forgotten her place in a rigid society. The young woman is subsequently dismissed from her post leaving the young master stricken with anxiety.

In fact, he does everything in his power to track her down, and he does. The striking part is how he is all but ready to renounce his family name, which in any culture is the ultimate insult, but in Japan, it’s even harsher. Family is everything. The fact he is adopted is a lingering embarrassment. He resolves to make his own way.

Life begins anew on the road, kicking around in another theater, then a traveling troupe. 4 years are cruelly lost with a title card transition. The road has been a hard taskmaster making the man resentful and callous. His wife now is still a genial spirit, but he is struggling to love her as he did before. All he has is bitterness, thanks to a constricting life he cannot break out of.

However, he receives one final chance at redemption, thanks to the behind door pleading of his faithful wife. She’s so devoted to him and his career, in fact, she’s prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. Analogous themes can be gleaned from the likes of Ozu and Naruse, but there’s no neglecting how central they seem to Mizoguchi’s entire oeuvre. There is no way to ignore their primacy throughout.

Kabuki is rarely shown in full motion — the behind the scenes drama is more pertinent — and when it is shown, in the climactic performance, it lacks gravitas. It is one of the few moments Last Chrysanthemums’ length does seem to catch up with it. However, in admitting my own inadequacies, this could admittedly speak more to my ignorance of kabuki than the actual merit of the sequences.

What strikes me is the overt implications. Kikunosuke is finally the success he always hoped to be. And yet, without his guiding light, success means nothing. Even as there is this implied sense of sacrifice for the sake of loved ones, one is bound to ask, at what cost?

Only two years after Stella Dallas, we have much the same weight in a sacrificial relationship. This one feels even more scalding given Japan’s deep traditions of submission and subjugation of women. 

At a substantial 2 hours and 20 minutes, The Story of The Last Chrysanthemum is a lugubrious epic but artfully done on all accounts. I look forward to seeing a better print in the future because the masters deserve only the best treatment. There’s no question Mizoguchi deserves such distinction.

4/5 Stars

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