The first moment in which I saw Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, the impact was beyond overwhelming to that point my writing had been stinted from going even further than what I had wished when I wanted to talk about what it had left upon me. The only thing I could ever pick out, however, was that it had broken my heart the way no other Mizoguchi film has done so, and I knew from first glance that only he could have handled such a story so masterfully. Yet this was unlike anything that I have seen from Mizoguchi, as the moment in which it had ended, I found myself in a wrecked state. I was wrecked because I was witnessing pain. Pain which I had also felt upon myself, it was all the more difficult to describe. Mizoguchi’s masterpiece, but also one for all of humanity.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums is a tragic romance set within the world of kabuki theater. Taking place in 1885, alternating between Tokyo and Osaka, we are told the story of Kikunosuke Onoe, a kabuki actor who is praised because of his adoptive father. Behind his back, he is a man who is disliked by his troupe, and the only person who has spoken to him with honesty is none other than Otoku, his infant brother’s wet nurse. After Otoku is fired from the family and forbidden to see Kiku, who falls in love with her and encourages him to go back into acting. I knew from this outline that it had to be none other than Mizoguchi who would handle it, but from the sound of the story and his fascination with the struggle of women, I would have first thought of another filmmaker. It was not until I finally saw the film, however, when my breath had been taken away.
A certain phrase comes to mind when I wish to talk about what sort of impact The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums can leave upon one: “Art imitates life.” A certain sense of tragedy comes along with how Mizoguchi moves on with the romance that develops between Kiku and Otoku. The two of them are people pained in different ways. Kiku is a man who has been lied to. Otoku’s suffering, on the other hand, is more physical, as she had been fired from the family of Kiku’s infant brother, and she takes a sacrifice in order to help one in the higher class. Although Kiku’s rising is Mizoguchi’s primary highlight for The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums as it progresses, a certain pain hits by that reminds us again of why he had been brought up. He has been rising at the expense of a lover in the lower class.
What has defined the work of Mizoguchi is how he portrays the trials of women within Japanese society, and the saddest thing about the pain in which he is depicting in his work is that it is still something running today. Perhaps it may not be as direct towards one’s eyes, but it is still somewhere to be found. When one comes to consider the time period in which he was most active, it is astonishing just to watch how politically aware Kenji Mizoguchi is, through his unflinching look upon any time period that can still run anywhere to be found today. Evidently, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums is a film that is angry. It is angry towards the gross mistreatment of the lower class, especially when it is only being used by the higher class to rise up even further. A different scenario comes into play, with Mizoguchi examining Kiku’s romance towards the lower-class Otoku, and over time his humanity only increases. Yet it is a specific moment in Otoku’s arc that soon brings on a greater sense of tragedy, for she becomes aware of how much she has wasted her own life because of the patronizing hierarchy all around. He builds so much upon what the other end does not know, heightening its impact.
Most astonishing to me, however, is the fact Mizoguchi has chosen never to close in on his actors’ faces. On my first watch, what I could simply say was that it was something that only eluded me, but it became clear with revisit that it was highlighting the film’s greater impact. Mizoguchi utilizes long takes as a means of highlighting the pain in his characters, but the wide shots only emphasize everything all the more in the sense that it is making clear the alienation between classes. It became all the more clear to me when the film’s ending hit, and it was that moment in which I suddenly felt a pain so unique to my own experiences. As Mizoguchi still keeps his focus upon the emotions of his characters, where the greater sense of expression comes about is in the anger running all throughout. The ending especially is where all of this anger erupts, as it condemns the way society had been ruled in its period. And when we link that to the pain of Otoku and Kiku, it suddenly becomes all the more tragic.
Kenji Mizoguchi has made several films that still find relevance within today’s society, especially in regards to the many forms of intolerance that run. One can observe the tales of Sansho the Bailiff and Ugetsu and note how politically aware they are when looked together with today’s world. It was not until The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, however, where not only did I find a sense of emotional attachment to their characters, I had felt a great pain coming towards myself. Pain at art imitating life, with the stories in which Kiku performs as an actor. Pain at art imitating life, with the bravery to show the gross alienating between classes. Pain at the beauty of the romance that had blossomed from Kiku and Otoku. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums is a painful experience altogether, but it is painful in the way that it had brought a new overview of the world to my eyes. This is not only a masterpiece when we speak in terms of the art of film, but a masterpiece for all of humanity altogether.
Watch a clip right here.
All images via Shochiku.
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi
Screenplay by Matsutaro Kawaguchi, Yoshikata Yoda, from the story by Shofu Muramatsu
Produced by Shintaro Shirai
Starring Shotaro Hanayagi, Kokichi Takada, Gonjuro Kawarazaki
Release Year: 1939
Running Time: 142 minutes