by Elizabeth Stoddard
A couple years ago I stumbled upon a Flavorwire list which became a sort of guidebook for me. Two friends and I meet up every few months to watch movies from the list of 50 Essential Feminist Films, from Alien to 3 Women to Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. A number of these essentials have been more challenging to find, such as Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (#13 on Nastasi’s list). When I saw that Criterion was releasing a restored version of the 1939 Japanese film, I snapped it up.
Mizoguchi’s tale, told over a span of years (and about 2.25 hours), dwells on aspiring actor Kikunosuke (Shôtarô Hanayagi) and the nursemaid Otoku (Kakuko Mori) who inspires him to greatness. The plot slowly unfolds during the setting of late 19th Century Japan, as Kiku becomes determined to marry Otoku and the patriarch of his family forbids it. Kiku leaves home and tries the hard life of a traveling actor.
Given Mizoguchi’s distaste for close-ups, there are none to be found in The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum. I never realized how much I depend on close-ups for emotive hints until there weren’t any! Indeed, for a large chunk of the film, Otoku’s face is hidden in shadow, or her features difficult to make out.
In some scenes, the back of her head is to the viewer, with the camera on her conversation partner. I’m not sure if this is to put less importance on her character, or if it is a point towards the universality of her type: the woman who sacrifices for a “great” man to succeed. She even refers to herself as “a nursemaid to [Kiku’s] art.”
She’s dismissed from her position in a great house when all she (initially) wants to do is make Kiku a stronger actor. As she’s the first woman to candidly critique Kiku’s acting, he falls for her. In the video essay included with this Criterion edition, critic Phillip Lopate notes a continuing theme of the self-absorption of the artist throughout works of Mizoguchi. While Otoku isn’t as enamored with Kiku at the start of their relationship, she does make the rather pivotal decision to find the actor on the road and move in with him.
The director’s style of shooting in this film includes lots of tracking shots (one outstanding sequence moves through compartments of a train car). There are long takes…Mizoguchi even throws in wide shots with obstructed views, so you can’t clearly see who is talking. These choices give The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum a theatrical feeling — especially in the segments of kabuki performance. We as viewers are kept at a distance, until the melancholy melodrama of the last third of the film draws us in.
I wouldn’t call The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum a feminist classic, although it is honest in its depiction of the limitations placed upon Otoku and her hopes for more (even if those hopes barely concern herself). It is a beautiful ode to the woman who gives all, and the man who comes to realize he may not be worthy of it.
Special Features and Extras:
– Video essay from critic Phillip Lopate, speaking about Mizoguchi’s directing style and the place of this 1939 film in his ouvre
— Newly restored 4K digital transfer of the movie, with uncompressed audio