Retro Review: The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939).
Director Kenji Mizoguchi’s tale of selfless devotion and artistic ambition is a cinematic triumph.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Zangiku Monogatari) is one of those films that rewards you with layer upon layer of artistry. On the level of story, it is a moving story about star-crossed love, thwarted ambition, and self sacrifice. Beneath this surface, Mizoguchi leverages the rich histories of Japanese poetic language and Kabuki theater to pack his narrative with metaphor and cultural commentary. Finally, the film is a treasure of cinematography from a film maker who would go on to become a legend in the industry.
While The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum does benefit from knowledge of Japanese art, culture, and symbolism, it is such an expertly crafted film that it transcends borders. It is a richly detailed love story and tale of human tragedy. It’s a film everyone should experience, regardless of your engagement with the cinematic history of Japan.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939).
Kikunosuke (Shotaro Hanayagi) is the adopted son and protege of Tokyo’s most well-respected Kabuki star. Since childhood, he has been groomed to replace his father as the preeminent actor of the tradition, but he secretly suspects that he isn’t really a very good actor. The Kabuki world’s structure is a rigid hierarchy, dominated by his father. If you want to have a career, you must conform. This means Kiku has been surrounded by flatterers and sycophants his whole life, men and women who don’t hesitate to cut him down the minute his back is turned.
Into this world, he meets Otoku (Kukoku Mori), the poor wet-nurse to his father’s new infant son. She plainly and honestly critiques his performances and lifestyle, instilling in him the drive to become a great actor. Not long into their friendship, Kiku falls in love with Otoku and proposes. This begins a tragic arc where they are disowned by his family, effectively blacklisting Kiku from the Kabuki world. Under a false name and playing mostly female roles, Kiku tries to prove his acting chops on his own while Otoku struggles to keep a roof over their heads.
Best Foot Forward.
The first half hour of Mizoguchi’s film is breathtaking. We open with an elaborate Kabuki performance where the camera goes from a static member of the audience to an active participant in the flurry of activity backstage between scenes. The camera weaves through the cut-away set to follow the flow of ideas, akin to the deft camera work in Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman. One conversation flows from the lesser player’s dressing room, out into the hall, where it is commented on and critiqued by somebody on the catwalk above who then moves to the star’s dressing room, etc. You get a visually engaging and information-dense introduction to the relationships and politics of the theater.
Mizoguchi is happy to let his perspective remain aloof and observant, a style he became famous for. He also is happy to let it travel through space in a way that only film allows. It was a shock and delight to see such daring cinematography from such an early film and director. Mizoguchi’s early studies in painting and theater seem to have complimented each other, and he shows an intuitive grasp of visual media that make his films daring and refreshing nearly a hundred years after he crafted them.
The middle of the film concerns the struggle and growing disillusionment of Kikunosuke and the quiet desperation of Otoku as she knows that societal rules mean that their brief love is doomed. It can be a touch sentimental in places, especially in its portrayal of the saintly self-sacrifice of Otoku, the “good wife”, but the fierce acting of Hanayagi and Mori work as a corrective on the sentimentality. Hanayagi shows a Kikunosuke eaten alive by his need to earn recognition, to the point that he utterly misses all of the sacrifices of his wife. Otoku is a tragic character, but Mori’s portrayal has a bittersweet self awareness to it. Her socially proscribed passivity masks a woman who moves heaven and earth to get Kiku noticed, and thereby secure herself happiness through his redemption.
Mizuguchi’s work often dwells on the inequalities in the society at large. The role of social castes, nepotism, and the status of women especially. The family hierarchy is often critiqued for forcing women into either bland submission or vicious scheming. He also extrapolates that critique outward to society’s marginalization of women. Otoku can come off as the passive victim of society, but many of Mizoguchi’s female characters, such as the protagonists of Sisters of the Gion or A Geisha, retain their agency in the teeth of expectations, as Otoku sometimes does.
Flaws that Compliment.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is not flawless, but I have a hard time holding the most obvious ones against it. There are relics of early film making marking the production. The title scroll bleeds at the edges, and the image quality can become fuzzy around the margins. Changes in depth of focus often result in gauzy scenes, and the camera sometimes lags behind when trying to come back into focus on the foreground. The lighting is uneven, with night and interior scenes obscured in darkness. The hi definition restoration that the Criterion Collection has done goes a long way towards minimizing this, but you can still see artifacts that a 4k remake just can’t cover up.
Technically, there are also film tropes that haven’t aged particularly well. The rough cut from a close up to an establishing shot to rush scene transitions is prevalent. If you watch nearly any film from that period, even well into the 40’s and 50’s, you get that inelegant transitioning often. When you look for it, you can spot it all over the place in early cinema. Many scenes end abruptly and then just begin somewhere or sometime else. I actually enjoyed it, to be honest. It helped to underscore how good and presciently modern the rest of Mizoguchi’s direction was.
You don’t need to know many of the cultural allusions that inform the film, but it enriches the experience immeasurably. Knowing general facts about Kabuki opens up the dynamic of the family drama, and specific knowledge of the scenes being shown add another layer of subtlety and commentary. The use of poetic allusions, especially flower meanings (hanakotoba) are sprinkled throughout the piece, from the titular chrysanthemums, to cherry blossoms, and in the final scene, peonies. Each has a library of meanings and cultural associations that a theater goer of the time would be expected to pick up on. The first half hour was so packed with such allusions that it took me a very pleasant hour to watch it between pauses. It’s not necessary, but it is rewarding to be aware of.
Joy and Sadness.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum had always floated on the periphery of my viewing itinerary. A bit like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, I avoided it precisely because so much lavish praise had been heaped upon it. Sure it can’t really be that good? Well, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is even better than advertised. I had to literally get up and go talk about every scene as they happened. Even if you only sit through the first act, you’re getting some of the finest cinema ever crafted. For any fan of Japanese cinema, it is a priceless treasure, lovingly restored by Criterion. If it’s on your “to watch” list, make sure to bump it to the top. It’s a delight.