The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Spine #832) is one of the earliest triumphs of legendary Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi. It’s his fourth film in the main collection, his eighth overall: Ugetsu (Spine #309), Sansho the Bailiff (Spine #386), The Life of Oharu (Spine #664); Osaka Elegy, Sisters of the Gion, Women of the Night, Street of Shame (Eclipse Series 13: Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women).
Set in Meiji era Japan, the film follows the doomed love between Kikunosuke Onoe (Shôtarô Hanayagi), the spoiled adopted son of a famous Tokyo Kabuki actor, and Otoku (Kakuko Mori), his father’s wet-nurse. When Kikunosuke, known as “Kiku,” leaves Tokyo in disgrace to be with Otoku, he reapplies himself to becoming a better actor. After five years of traveling throughout Japan with different acting troupes, Otoku sacrifices her happiness and eventually her life so Kiku can return to Tokyo and reclaim his place by his adoptive father’s side.
Here in the West, Mizoguchi’s two best known films are Ugetsu (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954). But neither are truly representative of the great master’s oeuvre. Ugetsu is a ghost story; Sansho the Bailiff a folkloric parable. Mizoguchi—one of the three great masters of classical Japanese cinema alongside Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirō Ozu—spent the bulk of his career creating highly personal proto-feminist films. Deftly combining tragic melodrama and social realism, these films examined the plight of women, particularly those of the lower classes. Perhaps the best introduction to the themes and concerns that dominated Mizoguchi’s career would be The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum. Though he had directed over 70 films, it was one of the first films Mizoguchi truly acknowledged as his own. His utilization of extreme long takes frequently lasting several minutes at a time and extended tracking shots reminiscent of Japanese scrolls helped establish an idiosyncratic visual style as immediately recognizable as Ozu’s “tatami mat” shots. Consider one sequence of astonishing beauty where Kiku and Otoku first walk the night streets of Tokyo together. Mizoguchi frames the actors and the buildings so that they occupy the bottom half of the frame while swallowing the top half in inky blackness—an Expressionist flourish considering how a realistic night sky in the 1880s would be full of stars.
Though Mizoguchi would fill his work with fallen women, few were as tragic as Otoku. Though many of these characters would be depicted as headstrong or spunky, Otoku is unique in her almost enthusiastic complicity in her own destruction. She sacrifices her family life to run away with Kiku, lives in poverty for years while he struggles to succeed as an actor, suffers in silence as he grows bitter and physically abusive, and manufactures her own disposal by convincing Kiku’s family to take him back in exchange for her leaving him. The film ends with one of the most heart-breaking scenes of Mizoguchi’s career: Otoku dying of tuberculosis as a parade welcoming Kiku back goes by her window.
Though The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is one of Mizoguchi’s most essential films, I would warn consumers away from the Criterion Collection’s recent Blu-ray release. For some bizarre reason, the film comes with an uncompressed, monaural soundtrack. As a result, the audio is drowned out and hissy, almost as if you were listening to it through a wall. Dialogue gets drowned out and the music fades into cacophonous walls of sound. The picture isn’t very crisp and well-defined, either. Everything seems blurry and occasionally washed out. Perhaps this was a creative choice—I remember marveling at Criterion’s crisp DVD transfer of Ugetsu. But combined with the sub-par audio, the image quality makes one feel like they’re watching it on Youtube in 15 parts circa the late 2000s.
The special features don’t fare much better. On the one hand there’s a brilliant interview with critic Phillip Lopate where he gives a fitting introduction to Mizoguchi, his work as a director, and the film itself. Though brief, it’s satisfying and comprehensive. On the other hand, the interior essay by professor and author Dudley Andrew is grotesquely abstruse. Full of academic buzz words like “caesura,” casual viewers will find it opaque and useless. As a film critic with a Master’s Degree in film studies, even I had some difficulty navigating his discussions of “fissures of montage” and the criticism of Noël Burch. Here is an essay better suited for post-Weekend Jean-Luc Godard, not lyrical melodrama and tragedy.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is a towering work by one of Japan’s premier cinematic artists. This Criterion Blu-ray does not do it justice. It’s worth a rental if you haven’t seen it yet. But only hardcore Criterion collectors need concern themselves with buying it.
Film Grade: A-
Criterion Grade: C-
Featured Image: The Criterion Collection