Adaptation · Criterion Collection · Drama · Japan · Romance

#832 The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum ‘残菊物語’ (1939)

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#832 The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum ‘残菊物語’

1939 // Japan // Kenji Mizoguchi 溝口健二

Criterion Release Date: 13 Sept 2016 (LINK)

Link on my letterboxd review

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The lavishing spotlight on Mizoguchi’s artistic outputs, which began internationally with his last period of works in the 50s, have been faded unwittingly in recent memory. While his two most celebrated works Ugetsu (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954) still retain critical acclaim in the 2012 Sight and Sound Critics Poll, ranking at the 50th and 59th place respectively, majority of attention in the realm of Japanese classical cinema has been largely focused on Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa. Although one need not to diminish the potency of Tokyo Story (1953) in order to appreciate Ugetsu, it’s hard not to think of one film over another. Besides, Mizoguchi’s works are not limited to that particular period. Timely, the long-waited release of the remastered The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum by the Criterion Collection provided us a fresh look on his pre-war work, perhaps it’s an opportunity to reapprehend Mizoguchi’s oeuvre after all.

Kenji Mizoguchi had been making silent films ever since 1920s, regrettably, a majority of his works in that period has been lost due to lack of preservation and relenting war. Despite the incomplete filmography, one could still easily catch glimpses of Mizoguchi’s artistic pursue in the signature long take, fluid dolly shots and obsessional adherence on the theme of women oppression from his existing early silent works, like The Water Magician (1933) or The Downfall of Osen (1935). Both features a woman sacrificing herself (one resorted to crime and the other one lost her sanity) for the man she loves. Stylistically, Osaka Elegy (1936) was the first film that Mizohuchi formalised his cinematic vision, composed of long takes and avoidance of close-up except the closing shot of Isuzu Yamada’s emotionally complex face. Yet it’s the 1939 film The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum that I viewed as the first true realisation of “Mizoguchian”.

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Based on the story by Shofu Muramatsu, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is unmistakably a Shinpa tragedy enwrapped in a doomed Romeo-and-Juliet romance and the meandering path to sublime arts. The film was made at the pinnacle of Japan militarism and the invasion of Manchuria, besides the “duty” of making propaganda films, censorship and various restrictions undoubtedly affected the film industry. Films of romance, tragedy and social critique were in the forbidden realm, even the formerly praised film Osaka Elegy was later banned of all local screenings in 1940. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum seems to fall into the same category as well, however, it was viewed as a support of federalistic loyalty, hence loyalty to the country (the ideology would be more apparent in Mizoguchi’s next film The 47 Ronin), and the purse of arts echoed the determination in achieving victory in wars. Although I could hardly classified the film as a pro-war film, nor Mizoguchi as a political-oriented director (his films did have a taste of Marxist of concerning lower class though), one shall not bypass that particular ambiance when the film was made.
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The arts that was depicted fiercely is Kabuki, like other traditional Japanese arts, it is an arts that is largely hierarchal and patriarchal, where a master passing on his skill to his apprentice, often from father to son. There are roles of women but all acted by men in dresses. Kikunosuke (Shotaro Hanayagi, a famous Kabuki actor himself) is the adopted son of the renowned Kabuki performer Kikugoro (Gonjuro Kawarazaki). Kikunosuke is already named as the heir even though Kikugoro has a new born son. Despite his substandard performance, Kikunosuke could only hear flattery and dishonest praise due to the name of his father while being ridiculed from behind.

During one of the elaborately crafted long take, the camera is set at a tilted-up angle, gliding and capturing Otoku (Kakuko Mori), the wet nurse of Kikunosuke’s baby brother, while she strolls alongside a riverbed with Kikunosuke and criticizes his performance with honest commentary. Otoku and Kikunosuke, without any close-ups or medium shots, are just two small figures in the middle of night, just as they are vulnerable under the pedigree pressure and class-conscious society, eventually engulfed by desperation. It is the exemplary of the “one-scene-one-take” technique Mizoguchi adopted vigorously. Devoid of conservative shot-reverse-shot or lacerating editing, each scene embodies a fluid and mythical rhythm rising to a crescendo note. Spectators could easily spot an incipient friendship or potential romance in that one scene, which would proceed equivocally in an intentionally long “watermelon-cutting” scene at Kikunosuke’s house afterwards.

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I’m not surprised when Kikunosuke’s mother steps in and dismisses Otoku in order to avoid scandal. The distressed Kikunosuke decides to leave the family against all objections and elope with Otoku to Osaka. Women in Mizoguchi’s films are often feeble yet hold with a strong will, either they are already to give up everything in exchange of the man’s success, or they are determined to resist the oppression like the younger sister in The Sisters of the Gion (1936), deceiving untrustworthy man for money and support. Otoku is portrayed as the former one, almost like a saint. She, as we could concede from the remaining film, only interests in enhancing Kikunosuke’s vision of arts. She supports him physically and spiritually, shares his burden and frustration even when he resorted to violence. She plays the role of Kikunosuke’s illegitimate wife, his caring mother and beloved sister, as well as the inspiration of his arts during their plight together. Kikunosuke turns from a wastrel to a masterful Kabuki performer, and his sole opportunity to perform in his father’s troupe is obtained in exchange of Otoku’s healthy, dignity and her ultimate withdrawal.

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It’s heart wrenching to see Kikunosuke’s desperate search of Otoku upon leaving to Tokyo in a train station, all captured in a single long dolly shot of Kikunosuke searching from compartment to compartment. The agony of separation is intensified with time used in a single shot, there is no cutting just as there is hiding of pain. The film reaches a monumental moment when Kikunosuke, finally inherited as the true successor of his father’s Kabuki, returned to the death bed of Otoku. Cross-cutting between Otoku, lying on bed in the dark dreary room where she used to share with Kikunosuke in their predicament, and the exquisitely dressed Kikunosuke on a boat receiving applause and admiration, one could argue the glorification of selfless sacrifice succumb to the patriarch society is a form of surrender itself, but at its core, and many other Mizoguchi’s films, it’s pure empathy and devotion.
Film Rating: 5/5
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