We finally get a little break from 1930s French and American movies to tackle the oldest Japanese sound film on the Sight & Sound list, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Zangiku monogatari, 1939). Japanese cinema didn’t get much international recognition prior to the Second World War, but it roared into the global consciousness in the 1950s, in no small part due to the work of director Mizoguchi Kenji. A prolific filmmaker, Mizoguchi produced somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 films in his career (many of which, sadly, are lost), but The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums is considered to be the moment his style fully crystallized. The movie follows the career trajectory of a kabuki actor in the late 19th century. The adopted son of a famous Tokyo stage actor, Kikunosuke is a bad performer coasting on the coattails of his father’s name. Otoko, the wet nurse of his infant brother, is the first person to be honest about his poor acting and urges him to really focus on his craft. Bolstered by Otoko’s encouragement and love, Kikunosuke disobeys his parents and heads off to make his own name on the stage — but that path is destined to be arduous, if not tragic. Though leisurely paced and restrained in mood, Last Chrysanthemums is a bravura exercise in lighting, choreography, and camera movement that never fails to impress. (143 min.)
S. – The central story of the film is a fairly simple one complicated by the intricacies of family dynamics and social class. It is beautifully shot and paced quite slowly, both factors adding to the impression of immense care taken by Mizoguchi in bringing the story to life. The struggle of Kikunosuke (Shôtarô Hanayagi) to get some honest feedback on his acting was earnestly portrayed and I really felt for him being aware that he was being mocked behind his back but with no-one willing to speak truthfully with him because of his father’s fame. Even his father’s advisors sought to shield the young actor from any negative appraisal. The situation left Kikunosuke completely isolated, without any opportunity to discuss his weaknesses or any guidance to develop his skills. The episode at the geisha house clearly showed that his celebrity was all that his social circle was interested in, no-one wanted to genuinely get to know him. So when Otoko (Kakuko Mori) took the risk of breaching the social heirarchy to criticise Kikunosuke it was inevitable that she would turn his head.
J. – Well, I don’t know about inevitable. Kikunosuke has clearly lived a spoiled existence in many ways, and consequently might have reacted very poorly to being criticized. It’s never really addressed from his vantage point, but the fact that his parents now have an infant son surely is one of the drivers of his actions and a source (if not the source) of his existential angst. As an adopted child, Kikunosuke might feel that his place as his father’s successor is no longer secure now that the baby has entered the picture, and therefore the need to become a legitimately great actor becomes that much more pressing. With his mind already in that unsettled place, it may not be the social daring of Otoko’s words that impressed him, but rather that she was the first person to say what he was already thinking.
And that brings up an interesting aspect of this film: Kikunosuke is a terrible leading character. I don’t mean that in the sense that he is unpleasant to watch or that he is a poorly developed creation, but rather that he is largely a non-entity in his own story, a figure who may have a good deal of self-awareness but no confidence or constancy to take the steps that must be taken. The meticulous direction by Mizoguchi reinforces that, as Kikunosuke is often confined to corners or overshadowed by other characters in the scene set up. Even the big moment about an hour into the film, when he finally makes a major decision on his own, happens off screen while the camera focuses on people in an adjacent room. A major contrast is drawn between our leading man and Otoko, who is really the driver the film.
S. – I did not mean to imply that it was Otoko’s social daring that attracted Kikunosuke, but rather that she was the only person willing to engage with him on a topic that was causing so much angst. More than likely had he been able to find counsel from someone in his social sphere Otoko’s advice on improving his acting would not have been so well received. The reaction of his adoptive mother to the rumours that Kikunosuke was fraternising with the help beautifully illustrated the significance of the boundary being crossed. But I do agree that as a central character he lacks any real presence and spends most of the film buffeted about by the stronger personalities that surround him. The theme that living a life of pampering and privilege as poor training for an actor and the tenuous nature of the position gifted to Kikunosuke is skilfully illustrated by him rarely being the focal point of a scene. The character is shown to be effectively trapped by his position, failure to succeed his father was not an option yet on his current path failure seemed the only conclusion. Yet the revered reputation of the family did not allow for any deviation from a smooth transition, the famous actors had a fairytale to provide to the admiring public.
J. – I did like that linking of the on-stage and off-stage lives, and this idea that domestic dramas real or imagined in the household of an actor would have a profound effect on their popularity in the theater. But all that said, I found it rather impossible to identify with the issues of Kikunosuke’s family, and his decision to strike out on his own seemed like a no-brainer to me. Now, I wonder if it was Mizoguchi’s intent to make Kikunosuke’s decision to be the obvious path (but admittedly one so difficult that the weak-willed character would likely fail), or if that conflict among the family played out as something more tense and daring in the Japanese cultural context of the day. Because in many, many ways, this is a very Japanese film. The very formal set designs and framing is strongly reminiscent of old prints with their sharp geometries, and the conflicts feel very remote from Western depictions of family and romance that you would find in a movie of that time. And the focus on kabuki is wonderful and fascinating, but impenetrable to me. The rythmns of speech and the movements are so artificial and grounded in a formal vocabulary of expression that it makes Shakespeare seem positively street. It is such a strange thing to see someone lambasted for bad acting and praised for good acting, and for me to not really be able to distinguish between the two.
All of that together kept me somewhat distant from Kikunosuke, which is ultimately fine because Otoko is the most interesting character in the film anyway. She is a purely selfless being who gives her all to a man who in many senses doesn’t deserve her support. It is interesting to see how the film makes a heroine out of her by having her break all of the social rules — she gets involved with her bosses’ son, who is well above her social station; she runs away from her family to live as this man’s wife without parental consent; and despite being a woman in a very male-dominated society publicly champions her failing husband when he lacks the confidence to do so on his own. But by breaking these rules through love and sincerity, Otoko casts light on how wrongheaded those rigid social constructs are.
S. – Otoko is the heart and the hero of the film. As things progress and it begins to become clear that she is likely to be the biggest loser I found myself increasingly disenchanted with the story. I think the disconnect stems from not having any real foundation in understanding the strict protocols that governed Japanese society. It is like you were saying about the kabuki acting, I really didn’t know if in that final performance Kikunosuke had succeeded until the response of the other characters made it clear. While the long, carefully choreographed scenes throughout the film did convey the power differentials of the players involved, I don’t think I have the sensibilities to appreciate the significance of Otoku’s actions. I saw a strong determined woman who gave up everything to support the partner she believed in and was then cruelly discarded. The eleventh hour acknowledgement of her deeds was perhaps meant to be satisfying, but to me it was a bitter twist that respect was paid only after she had been effectively destroyed. The tragedy makes for a powerful ending but for me it was infuriating.
J. – I don’t think Otoko was cruelly discarded, at least not by Kikunosuke. In truth, she discarded him, albeit with the aim of promoting his advancement. And the movie does find a way to have her lose everything, but in some very important ways Otoko ends up perhaps being the only victor in this scenario. For one thing, she was right about Kikunosuke; indeed, she was the only one who was right about him, and that moment of reuniting with him at the end doesn’t feel like too little, too late — at least not for her. She may be doomed, but I think she received genuine contentment in how matters had resolved themselves. It is Kikunosuke who is the ultimate loser, achieving his dream only to lose everything that made that achievement special and worthwhile. It’s a very tough balancing act to have a character who believably feels victorious even though she has been horrendously treated and ultimately destroyed by the society around her, and I think Kakuko Mori was able to do that quite well in her portrayal of Otoko. But I also think the film is perhaps too staid in its emotions — I recognize that this probably comes with the territory for this social setting, but swallowed up emotions can move from simmering tension to colorless vapor if the pot (or plot) is left on too long, and this movie’s languid pace does ultimately undermine a lot of the emotional beats of the film.
That said, it is a gorgeous-looking movie and those pacing issues were probably in part due to the length of the takes. It’s remarkable how long scenes would go on for without an edit.
S. – Despite my personal discomfort with the harsh treatment of Otoko The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums is beautiful to watch and interesting throughout. I guess my strong reaction to the injustice is a measure of just how much it drew me in. Most of the film is shot indoors or in a dark environment, which has a framing effect on the action. Mizoguchi is creative with his use of space and camera movement, your eye is not always fixed front and centre yet it feels as though you instinctively know where to look. I wouldn’t call it naturalistic because the scenes all feel very constructed, but the way you are lead through the spaces that the characters inhabit is effective at pulling you into their world. The film was very engaging and I’m excited to see more from this director.
J. – The film is very painstakingly directed, and I think that applies equally to the sets, which really do have that constructed feel you mention. It’s all straight lines and very precise angles, and often obstructions obscure part or most of the frame. And I was very drawn to the starkly black and white cinematography, which makes excellent use of black skies and brilliant white lights and white rooms.
But what really blew me away was the length of the takes. There are takes in this movie that have to be about six or seven minutes long — lots of them. I think it made for very compelling viewing, as it really inserted the viewer into the scene, but it never felt stagy, because Mizoguchi kept his camera moving or manipulated the positioning of characters to great effect within the frame. It reminded me in some ways of the techniques employed by Jean Renoir, who is also quite fond of long takes, moving cameras, and meticulous character placements. The difference is that Renoir’s long takes tend to be filled with movement and energy, whereas Mizoguchi’s (at least in this movie) are more formal and staid. I think that combination of formality and extended scene length did at times slow the movie down a bit too much. And the complete avoidance of any close ups meant that the emotional punch was much softer than what one is used to in a teary drama. But these really are minor quibbles when you have such wonderful images to gaze upon.