Often described as Kenji Mizoguchi’s best pre-war film, in which he first fully realised his signature style of long takes and masterful, sweeping camera moves, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939) also illustrates why the director has faded in the public and critical consciousness since his emergence abroad as a titan of Japanese cinema, with such films as Ugetsu (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954).
Not that this drama of doomed love, with its mise-en-scène of unsurpassed emotional depth, social complexity and visual beauty, is still anything less than a masterpiece. But its theme of female self-sacrifice, one to which Mizoguchi returned again and again over the decades, goes against the modern preference for stories of female empowerment.
Set in Japan in the 1880s, when the feudal past was still culturally very much present, the film begins with a stage performance by Kikunosuke “Kiku” Onoe (played by Shotaro Hanayagi), the adopted son of a distinguished kabuki actor. Praised to his face by various sycophants but slated for his bad acting behind his back, with his father being the most critical, Kiku is no fool – and suspects something is amiss.
When his infant brother’s wet nurse, Otoku (Kakuko Mori), tells him frankly (if politely) how bad he is, he’s impressed rather than offended – and becomes determined to marry her. His imperious father loudly opposes the union, however, so Kiku decides to leave the kabuki troupe – and his chance for certain stardom – to start over with Otoku in the provinces.
The consequent trials and tribulations of this couple might sound like old-fashioned soap opera, with grinding poverty, Otoku’s deteriorating health and a violent outburst from Kiku in the mix. Mizoguchi, however, transforms the material, which was based on a novel inspired by an actual actor, into a poetically realistic, evocatively realised portrait of a world now vanished.
If Otoku’s willingness to give up her husband and even her own life for his professional success sounds retrograde, she is also the most perceptive judge of his talent, as well as his strongest support. That is, she is the film’s most humanly admirable character.
The ending, with its stark contrast between the two principals’ respective fates, punctuated by a rare frontal close-up of a frantic Kiku racing to be with a desperately ill Otoku, is by turns sublimely elegiac and hauntingly tragic.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums will be screened on December 17 at Festival Grand Cinema, in Kowloon Tong, as part of the Cine Fan programme.