The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum: A Cineaste’s Performance

On Film / Essays — Sep 13, 2016

In an era when movies were deemed no more than disposable entertainment, with prints routinely melted down for their silver, Kenji Mizoguchi fanatically pursued perfection. An aesthete, he destined his films to enter the realm where fine pottery and poetry perdure. This ambition arose in 1936, when he was working on his first independent features, Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion, and inspired his collaborators to outdo themselves. That perfectionism bankrupted Masaichi Nagata’s little production company, but the reward was inestimable: third-best and top film, respectively, in Japan’s annual critics’ poll. Mizoguchi and his team stuck with Nagata, now working for Shinko Kinema, and together they made The Straits of Love and Hate (1937), from Tolstoy’s Resurrection—that’s how high Mizoguchi aimed. As for Resurrection: the novel is melodrama of the purest sort, while its title might apply to much of Mizoguchi’s oeuvre. And resurrection is the very theme of The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939), his next great undertaking.

Masterworks are expensive. Their creation can cost tremendous time and suffering, like the five years of impoverished obscurity that Kiku, the actor protagonist of Last Chrysanthemum, spends perfecting his craft. Far worse, his resurrection and return to the bosom of the reigning kabuki dynasty costs his lover, Otoku, her life with him, her life altogether. How often Mizoguchi’s women fall or die so their men can rise—like those of Utamaro and His Five Women (1946), whose lives crumble as the artist’s fame soars on the strength of his exalted ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) depicting their passion. Or like Miyagi in Ugetsu (1953), whom Genjuro abandons to her senseless murder while he pursues the “higher” road that the beauty of his pottery opens for him. In a process of sublimation, women, creatures of the mundane, precipitate and are ground under. This is what happens in The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, a film that scholar Darrell William Davis has singled out as the embodiment of “the monumental style” in Japanese cinema.

Monuments are constructed for eternity. They would withstand erosion, whether from the ceaseless waves of daily experience or the tsunamis of political history. Mizoguchi made this film so as not to drown in either. On the daily side were his growing problems with his wife, Chieko, who, due partly to his tirades and marital inconstancies, became increasingly deranged. She would be permanently institutionalized a few years later. Then, in autumn 1938, came news of the mysterious death of his brother, a political radical. A distraught Mizoguchi renounced the propaganda efforts he had halfheartedly agreed to make a year before, when, just after The Straits of Love and Hate premiered, the Marco Polo Bridge incident—involving Chinese and Japanese troops stationed in China—led to Japanese aggression and a state of war. In his next three projects, beginning with Last Chrysanthemum, Mizoguchi would retreat to the Meiji period and the circumscribed world of theater, where he felt at home.

Already a distillation of experience, theater, when doubled by cinema, reveals the chemical process by which makeup transforms a face into a mask, a wig turns a woman into a ghost, lighting and sound reveal a wind chime to be an ethereal blessing. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is a temple for sublimation: Mizoguchi cast a reigning contemporary star of shinpa theater—Shotaro Hanayagi would be named a “living national treasure”—to play in a historical film about an actual kabuki actor, Kikunosuke Onoe, who in turn plays, among other roles, a courtesan transformed into the spirit of a cherry tree.

Complementary paradoxes link cinema to theater as they strive to rise above themselves. Theater, as transient as daily life, exists only when performed. Hence all its repetitions and reiterations; hence too its guilds of apprenticeship and, in kabuki, the lineage of acting dynasties. The legendary Kikugoro Onoe V adopted Kiku to carry on the style the former had learned from his famous father, and so on. The paradox lies here: datable, contingent performances vividly incarnate changeless models. Cinema, on the other hand, the medium most open to contingency, embalms events and specific performances—including those of actors (which Mizoguchi was loath to interrupt through cutting); those of the camera, which responds to the action; and that of the music, which eggs on or reacts pathetically to the drama.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum delivers such performances one block at a time. Three of these blocks are extended kabuki excerpts, while the rest highlight or add to scenes from the shinpa play that is the movie’s closest source. Now, shinpa grew out of kabuki in the 1880s, when this particular play is set. Realistic, topical, and intimate by comparison, shinpa nevertheless retains many of the formal principles that today make kabuki a cultural monument: both feature men taking on female roles, and in both a musical ensemble sits to the side of the stage to interact with the drama.

Mizoguchi strove to make this shinpa play as memorable as kabuki, through deliberate camera work that includes several tour de force long takes: Kiku and Otoku’s five-minute stroll when they first bond; the mother’s dismissal of Otoku, ending with a surprising circular tracking movement; the reunion of the lovers in Osaka when, with the camera continually reframing, they meander to Kiku’s garret; the elaborate scene that uses four different rooms of the Onoe home when, while the troupe discusses the tour that will take them to Osaka, Kiku revisits the kitchen where his love for Otoku took root. The motivations, dialogue, and gestures in such scenes may come from the shinpa play, but Mizoguchi’s mise-en-scène and his sound design memorialize them, monumentalize them. He makes the contingent appear necessary, by delicately separating, then rhythmically combining, successive pictorial framings and registers of sound.

Impressed by its grandeur, the Ministry of Education cited the film for honoring both tradition and the Japanese family. Some critics have concluded that Mizoguchi was thoroughly swayed by the military’s appeal to the culture industry to strengthen national ideals. His appointment the next year as president of the Japanese Association of Film Directors would seem to confirm his induction into the official ideology. Yet his closest associate, scriptwriter Yoshikata Yoda, insisted that Mizoguchi concentrated so intently on his art, and on art in general, that politics was just a hazard to navigate cautiously, like studio producers. His one goal: to make sublime cinema.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum has the air of such ambition. Massive in length, it is composed of scenes that play out in blocks exhibiting few fissures of montage. Shigeto Miki, his chief cameraman since his beautiful 1933 Meiji-mono, perched a wide-angle lens (unusual for Mizoguchi) about eight feet off the ground for many shots. From this position, we look far into Hiroshi Mizutani’s astonishingly complicated sets. And we do more than look into those sets; we sometimes move around and within them, through either a slight pan that forms a fully distinct composition, or a daring track that may even come around on another side. Meiji-era architecture, with small rooms, sliding shoji, and interconnected balconies, lends itself to a mise-en-scène in which characters may resituate themselves several times over in the course of the emotional flow of a scene, often observed by other characters who peek through openings.

The sets correspond to a modular narrative design. The three lengthy kabuki scenes highlight the beginning, middle, and final modules of a five-act drama that forms an inverted V, each act set in a different city: Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Tokyo, Osaka. The Nagoya kabuki performance marks the apex of this V, and on either side of it are scenes that mirror each other, right down to camera placement. Where, in act 1, Otoku and Kiku put the baby to bed, then moved to a corner of the kitchen, where they shared a watermelon, by act 4 that baby is a five-year-old playing in the same room. Going into the kitchen this time, Kiku looks on as a servant cuts into a round loaf of bread, in a shot taken from precisely the same angle as when he prepared the melon. Kiku stands immobile before this memory-image of himself. Just prior, Otoku is shown returning to the Osaka garret in a shot setup so similar to one that took place before the Nagoya apex that her “sister” remarks, “You’ve completely changed.” Indeed, this structure makes us, the audience, measure just such change. Some repetitions are entirely formal, like a tight lateral shot that tracks past seven train compartments as Kiku looks in each for Otoku. The rhythm established by the foregrounded perpendicular walls that separate the cars matches an earlier lateral movement of the camera whisking by seven similarly demarcated market stalls as Kiku desperately searches them, after Otoku is dismissed from the family.

During the eight-minute finale from the eighteenth-century kabuki play Tsumoru koi yuki no seki no to, staged in Nagoya, Kiku’s character is transformed from courtesan to spirit of the cherry tree. The audience’s wild applause makes this climax equally the film’s, since Kiku’s outstanding performance convinces his uncle to accept him, thus reversing the direction of the drama back toward Tokyo, family, and fame. Its thirty-two cuts also make the sequence exceptional, especially since two-thirds of these are reactions distributed consecutively among Kiku’s friend, his wife, and the uncle, who represents the Onoe dynasty. Such an exciting decoupage stands out from the two other kabuki modules, both presented without any spectator reactions. At the center of the Nagoya performance, Otoku suddenly becomes the focus, descending under the stage to pray to Buddha. Film scholar Chika Kinoshita credits Otoku’s prayer with bringing about, through an ellipsis marked by a caesura in the sound, the moment of that spiritual transformation onstage, after which, symmetrically, the performance and the reactions to it are distributed as before. Thus has Mizoguchi built his drama on a foundation of modular arithmetic. He has also lodged a heroine’s interiority at the core of this film adaptation of a shinpa play taken from a novel about kabuki. In the 1932 novel, Shofu Muramatsu puts Otoku’s turn to prayer in parentheses, setting off interiority via punctuation. Mizoguchi outdid both novel and play, rendering Otoku’s soul, the omphalos of his film, in silence and darkness.

It is understandable that a director who puts a film together in this meticulous way should be taken as a constructivist. Film theorist Noël Burch anchors the abstraction of such patterns in the aesthetic forms of traditional Japanese arts; then he projects abstraction onto Mizoguchi’s modernist project, claiming that it undermines standard Japanese cinema as well as the family system. Burch feels that The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum strikes an ax blow at the trunk of the status quo, which, in Japan as everywhere, makes gender and class distinctions appear to be natural and eternal. Rather than represent as organic the feudal family system, Mizoguchi presents it in a thoroughly artificial manner for all to see. The same evidence leads Darrell William Davis not to this Marxist or Brechtian view but to the opposite assessment of the film’s ideological valence. He worries that Mizoguchi’s magnificent artistic construction stands as a monument to Japanese exceptionalism, ratifying the military’s appeal that all subjects prepare to make the kind of sacrifice Otoku made for the good of the great family of the nation. The eminent leftist Japanese critic Tadao Sato mixes these two views. The family of the nation-state may appear to triumph at the end, but early on Otoku succeeded where family failed, for not only was she perceptive enough to spot Kiku’s deficiencies, she also followed through and got him to change. This she did, Sato claims, not out of romantic love—something unavailable in the essentially feudal system that held her back—but out of pride. She couldn’t conceive of joining the family, and died content with her dignity.

Which position do I support? None of them. Mizoguchi was never clear about politics, even if many of his films express urgent social concerns. He should be thought of less like Milton, carefully planning Paradise Lost, then executing it over a seventeen-year period, and more like Shakespeare, for whom political positioning was just one of many pressures on the immediate task of writing and staging plays in fast-moving London. The miracle is not that Hamlet undermines the ideology of monarchy; the miracle is that Shakespeare wrote such a towering, complex yet integrated work in 1603, when everything was in flux. This was the year of Elizabeth’s death and the ascension of James I, the year the Lord Chamberlain’s company became the King’s Men, the year Shakespeare’s rival Ben Jonson’s tragedy Sejanus His Fall was first staged. Acting in that play, Shakespeare knew it by heart. Did it motivate his Hamlet?

Just so, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum was born of a conjunction of forces, none of which should be deemed prime mover. With a temperament and style suited to Meiji-mono, Mizoguchi was bound to encounter Hanayagi through his cowriter and childhood friend Matsutaro Kawaguchi, since the latter, a successful novelist, had also written for the shinpa stage and was close to this great actor. Despite being twenty years too old for the part, Hanayagi was persuaded to go for the first time before the camera because this concern was obviated by Mizoguchi’s long-shot, long-take style. Indeed, Hanayagi’s age and talent encouraged the director to push his method well beyond its previous limits. This required a proficient costar. Apparently, Kinuyo Tanaka, who would at last begin her career with Mizoguchi the following year, was proposed but couldn’t get free. Shochiku provided Reiko Kitami, who was pretty enough but didn’t make it past the first week’s shooting, crumbling under Mizoguchi’s notoriously imperious direction. At this point, Hanayagi stepped in; he would work best with Kakuko Mori, a stage actress who had studied under him. Aside from this production, neither lead would play in more than two other films in his or her life.

The challenge of directing genuine shinpa actors to deliver an (essentially true) story of a kabuki dynasty stoked Mizoguchi’s imagination and resolve. Ingenious and varied scenes were conceived and executed; his intuition about what to show and how to show it was infallible as the modules of scenes composed of separate elements fell into coherence, accumulating more and more emotional power. The Ministry of Education may have found this power useful to its particular ends, but this film was hardly predrawn by ideology. Rather, it constitutes a cineaste’s performance. Mizoguchi’s genius lies in the judicious, brilliant way he adjusts (like his camera) to what develops before him, while ever holding his sensibility intact. He is like the kabuki actor—dancer, really—who, in memorable moments, works gradually toward an exquisitely expressive posture he knows how to hold before eventually releasing it: a mie, this is called. At once stately and quivering with life, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum stands before us more mie than monument.