NOTE: Due to translation problems, nobody seems to be sure if “Chrysanthemums" is plural or not. Also, I spoil the ending because I thought it necessary.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939, Japan)
This is the second film I have seen by Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi - considered one-third of the holy trinity of Japanese directors (himself, Kurosawa, Ozu). The other film was The Life of Oharu (my review here) - both are united by one specific type of character. That character is the woman who sacrifices her well-being for the sake of others. Where in The Life of Oharu, Oharu was the victim of injustices that were beyond her control, the character of Otoku (Kakuko Mori) in The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums willingly sacrifices her occupation of family wetnurse and, ultimately, her life, in order to help Kikunosuke Onoue (Shotaro Hanayagi) advance his career.
Both films run 148 minutes. I can’t decide which of the films told the more tragic tale. Considering that I teared up in both over Oharu and Otoku, I don’t want to make that decision.
Let’s focus now on The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums. Kikunosuke is the adopted son of a famous kabuki actor (Gonjuro Kawarazaki) in late 19th century Tokyo. The acting family assumes he will take the position from his father in due time and praise Kikunosuke for his perofmances. One night, Otoku (nursing his newborn baby brother) tells him the truth in a masterfully shot five-minute scene that progresses with not a single cut (notice the movements and position changes from beginning to end… Otoku eventually finds herself in Kikunosuke’s shadow and is there to stay).
Reportedly, this is the first film Mizoguchi started experimenting with takes lasting three to nine (NINE!) minutes at a time in order to establish a deliberate, glacial pace. There is often very little movement during these long takes - these scenes usually are scenes of dialogue in medium or long-range shots (there are zero closeups in the film) Unfortunately, for a more expert review on Mizoguchi’s geometry and framing, this is not the place to find it. But as a mere novice of understanding auteuristic cinematography, even I can come to appreciate the efforts and effects.
The two form a bond frowned upon by social mores. Rumors swell, Kikunosuke refuses to break their love, she is subsequently fired, and he goes looking for her to thank her for her brutal honesty. And for six years, Kikunosuke wanders away from home (throwing away the family name in order to prove his true worth) with Otoku following him - she is there to help her lover flourish as an artist and grow as a spouse in all but name and a humbler, wiser, human being. This aid comes at the expense of her own physical health The pain that Kikunosuke suffers is ultimately never feels as convincing or as grave as that suffered by Otoku. One would think that in such a progressive depiction in a relationship between a couple, things would be a little more even-handed. Compared to The Life of Oharu, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums is decidedly more male-centric - this is not to say the character of Otoku is submissive and weak, anyone with a smidge of compassion could only marvel at her unshakable resolve and drive to take the lead for her husband. Meanwhile, Kikunosuke comes off as naive and a tad bumbling in his early years of exile.
To spoil, Kikunosuke becomes the actor he, his father, his family, and most importantly, Otoku. The day he returns to his father’s troupe, Kikunosuke forgives both of them - an esteemed actor can claim to love any woman he wants. On her deathbed dying of tuberculosis, Otoku is told by Kikunosuke that his father has forgiven the both of them. They are crying - for different reasons. He must leave as they are having a river parade in his honor. Alone, her sight begins to fail and asks the relative strangers around her to describe the scenes of the parade. Before they can do so, the last chrysanthemum has wilted, many years later than it should have.
Moments like those are why I am a believer in cinema. The pictures and fleeting shadows are evocative as much as Hanayagi (a stage actor in his first film) and Mori’s acting refuse to be cornered into what could be called a melodramatic screenplay. Otoku could have simply lied to Kikunosuke, to allow him to wallow in his own mediocrity. Her selflessness and the loneliness of her death was shattering to me and I know someone, somewhere, in our great, big, messy world of film wants to make a movie like The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums. Someone wants to introduce to us an Otoku.
1939 marked the height of Imperial Japan and filmmakers were prodded into making their period pieces take place in the Edo era of the 17th century - which was remarkable for its stability in its traditions and isolationist foreign policy. Mizoguchi thought the period to be inappropriate for his adaptation of Shofu Muramatsu’s novel andset it during the Meiji Restoration of the late 19th century instead - an era associated by Japan’s transition from feudal to modern industrialist times and societal change. It’s a wise choice considering Mizoguchi’s past, which made him more of a feminist than probably even he realized.
Mizoguchi’s mother had died when he was seventeen, leaving his older sister Suzu to shield him from their father’s brutal behavior. Suzu would later be sold into geishadom, but retained her sisterly relationship to Kenji - inspiring his own art amidst her own, seemingly inescapable situation. She would later happily marry, but the experience would forever mark Kenji Mizoguchi’s films - the subject of the suffering of women would permeate his work.
For reasons stated in the fifth paragraph, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums is just barely worse than The Life of Oharu. But that is not saying much - The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums richly deserves its reputation as a masterpiece film, even if experimental and anti-Mizoguchi in a few respects.
Despite eliciting an emotional reaction from me, I’m not sure if I could fully relate to the film. But I now realize that chrysanthemums are to be treasured, cherished, and thanked. How I wish they weren’t so fleeting, but how I wish we could all hold one in our hands, if but for a moment.