Mastering the long take is no easy task, but it was one of the trademarks of the Japanese filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is regarded as his first great film, released in 1939, on the cusp of World War II. Despite a melodramatic plot that’s rather simple, the film is not an easy one for audiences. It challenges what we have come to know as film language, yet is a true masterpiece of world cinema.
Chrysanthemum is a backstage romance movie. Set during the late 1800s and in the kabuki world, we find struggling actor Kikunosuke Onoue (Shôtarô Hanayagi), who lives in the shadow of his adoptive father, the great Kikugoro Onoue (Gonjurô Kawarazaki). Kiku’s life is not going well, as his father has had a biological son and his acting is terrible. But as as the son of a star, no one dares tell “The Young Master” the truth to his face. After one bad performance, he meets Otoku (Kakuko Mori), the nurse taking care of his baby brother. She surprisingly tells him the truth and he suddenly falls in love with her. He realizes that Otoku is the only person willing to help him become a better actor. Rather than follow his parents’ wishes and get rid of Otoku, he runs away.
After a year of terrible acting alone in Osaka, Otoku suddenly shows up and helps him learn his craft. Unfortunately, when Kiku’s uncle dies, he is left to fend for himself and their fortunes get worse. Otoku gets sick while they are a member of a traveling kabuki troupe, but her drive to find her husband a better position at whatever cost never wavers.
The film is densely packed with different aspects that one could write a book about. Mizoguchi takes a story (based on a novel by Shôfû Muramatsu) that shouldn’t really take 143 minutes to get through and stretches it with his style. While a lack of close-ups (there are none in the entire movie) and long takes that can sometime last as long as nine minutes might appear to put the audience at a distance from the story, it doesn’t really. It makes you feel a part of it. Mizoguchi’s camera remains static at moments when we want to hear a conversation, but moves as we would to follow the action in others. This also gets the audience involved in the film. We have to learn for ourselves what is going on and what we need to pay attention to. The performances by Hanayagi and Mori are delicate and worthy of praise, but without seeing their faces up close, we only get to know them as fictional characters, not as stars in a movie.
Criterion’s Blu-Ray release hits stores on September 13. The 4K restoration by Shochiku used a mix of a 35mm fine-grain positive and a 35mm duplicate negative. Unfortunately, the film has seen better days, although those days were 77 years ago. It does not look anywhere near as good as, say the Cat People Blu-ray, but you have to understand where the film comes from. It’s hazy, out of focus in some shots and it appears that there might have been missing frames. That said, I’m not sure how much better this film would look with an even more extensive restoration. On the audio side, things are indeed rough. If I understood Japanese, I don’t think it would be possible to pick up most of the dialogue.
- Despite being priced at $39.99, the Blu-ray only includes a single feature. For just over 20 minutes, critic Phillip Lapote discusses Mizoguchi’s unique style of filmmaking and the importance of Chrysanthemum in his career. It’s an energetic piece, as Lapote admits up front that he is a big Mizoguchi fan and considers the film one of the greatest ever made. It’s a good primer for someone like myself, who has never seen a Mizoguchi film before.
- Yale professor Dudley Andrew provides the essay on the insert.
This was a film that needed Criterion’s “film school in a box” treatment. But what would really have interested me would be a documentary on the kabuki theater. While Lapote touches on it briefly, a more in-depth look at the art that is so central to this film would give the viewer a better understanding of it. It’s disappointing that Criterion didn’t go all-out on this film, which does deserve that “masterpiece” label. Chrysanthemum needs to be seen, so this Blu-ray is recommended for the film even if the overall package isn’t quite up to Criterion’s high standard.
Thanks to Criterion for providing the Blu-ray to review!