Story of Last Chrysanthemums (1939)

7 03 2008

Another great acting troupe/theater-related film from Mizoguchi, the other, of course, being Love of Sumako the Actress. This one is fairly different though, even if it also tells the tragedy of a would-be romance. I guess I could see this as the same sort of story with the roles reversed. Here, we follow a male actor trying to downplay his name, in Sumako we follow a female actor trying to make a name for herself. The true similarities lie in the fact that both films show Mizoguchi’s writing at it’s most perceptive, a trait often overlooked by his “spiritual” reputation brought on by many of his later films.

Kikunosuke is likely to follow in the foot steps of his adoptive father, Kikugoro, and become a great actor. There’s a problem though: he’s a terrible actor and perhaps even worse, no one is willing to tell him. He asks friends for feedback after a subpar performance but they only give him what they suspect he wants to hear. One night he strikes up a conversation with Otoku, the nurse of his (new-born) brother. She is the first person who is honest with his acting talent, or lack thereof. Dedicated to perfecting his craft, Kikunosuke begins spending more and more time with Otoku, which eventually evolves into rumors. Eventually, Otoku is fired by the family and returns to her parents. Kikunosuke, upset, leaves his adopted family to marry Otoku and become a genuinely good actor. However, the couple’s ideal plan doesn’t work out quite how they wanted and as life becomes harder, they begin to drift further apart.

Much like Mizoguchi’s own Sisters of the Gion, this is about as perfectly crafted as a film can be. I particularly love just flawlessly the long tracking shots can lead into long, distanced static shots. I suppose this could be classified as his “early” style and it’s great to finally see on a decent print; Sisters of the Gion only exists from an old VHS. Needless to say, this looks really great.

On the other more subjective end of the spectrum, this didn’t up as great as I had hoped for. Perhaps it’s just the increasing amounts of Mizoguchi I’ve been pilling on my viewing schedule but I’m getting a bit weary of some of his weaker cinematic traits. Does there need to be such a tragic tone to every film he makes? I mean, it’s not tragedy that bothers me per se but the very Mythological way in which Mizoguchi structures it. The scenes in which are protagonist are at their lowest (financially and emotionally) reveal nothing and feel more like “plot time” as opposed to time for fleshing the characters out. My next compliant is a little less problematic but in any case, I find the ellipses a tad bit annoying. The unneccessary “1 year later…” intertitles bother me more than anything, but still it felt like the film needed to cut ahead in time whenever nothing dramatic was occurring.

Personally, I would have preferred more anti-dramatic scenes that would give some better character development. It seems a lot of said scenes were attempted to be squeezed in towards the end. There’s a really good one, in which Otoku stares at the floor for a uncomfortable amount of time. There’s a really bad one too, in which Kikunosuke, finally achieving (deserved) fame reunites with an ill Otoku. A good idea but the sequence just amounts to Kikunosuke monologuing. It’s such scenes that really downplay the rest of Mizoguchi’s writing, which tends to feel very natural and spontaneous. This could be a good explanation as to why he’s never been seen as understanding human relationships as well as Ozu and Naruse. In a film like this, it almost seems like he’s trying to simplify certain things just so dumb people can understand it.

For the most part, though, this is a really great film that’s only marred by some trademark flaws. Even though I did accuse Mizoguchi of dumbing things down with characters, he’s completely relentless in his technical approach. In all honesty, this isn’t that much more slower (in relation to shot length) than Tsai’s work and he isn’t even generally accepted here in 2008. I have a hard time imagining what audiences in 1939 would react to something similarly minimalistic. In that case, I guess some conventional drama needed to be thrown in to even things out. Even with such shades of melodrama, this is a very deep and tender character study presented in the most elegant of ways.