(Please note that in the 1001 Book, this film is referred to as The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums.)
Sometimes you watch a two-and-a-half hour film and the time flies by, but then there are films like director Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), which seem to drag on forever. An obvious proponent of extremely long, static takes, Mizoguchi was a reflective storyteller who had a habit of making depressing movies (think Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff). Recently on TCM I heard Ben Mankiewicz say that Mizoguchi was regarded as one of the three best Japanese directors ever, behind the likes of Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. Okay, I can accept that, but I still wish his pacing were faster and his stories a tad less stylized.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums takes place in 1880s Japan and revolves around hammy kabuki actor Kikunosuke (Shotaro Hanayagi). Protected by his famous father’s name, Kikunosuke plods along giving poor performances while everyone in Tokyo ridicules him behind his back. The only person who has enough courage to tell him the truth about his acting is his brother’s wet nurse, Otoku (Kakuko Mori). Every tragedy needs a good setup, and as luck would have it Kikunosuke and Otoku fall in love against Kikunosuke’s family’s wishes. Banished to first Osaka and then the provinces, Kikunosuke struggles on while developing his art at the urging of Otoku. In the process, like any good woman, Otoku completely destroys her health and happiness to ensure that Kikunosuke returns to his family as a great actor. Without giving the ending away, let’s just things don’t end on a happy note—which is the case in just about every Mizoguchi film I have ever seen.
Self-sacrificing women saturate the world of cinema, but Otoku has to be in the top tier of the all-time greatest ever. While her behavior irritates me beyond measure, Mori’s performance is quite good and makes the movie bearable. Older Asian cinema is permeated with highly stylized acting which can be off-putting to many modern viewers. However, the one good thing about this style is that actors can’t hide behind bravado and over-active hand gestures. Mori plays Otoku as a serene creature who wastes no energy on melodramatic hysterics. When things don’t go well for her (which is 90% of the time), she patiently accepts what fate has dealt her.
My biggest complaint with The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums is Mizoguchi’s unflinching dedication to the extreme long take. Yes, I know he is attempting to create an atmosphere of introspective reflection, but at some point it just steps over the bounds of acceptability. I think if he had cut most of these scenes in half I would have enjoyed the film much more. Mizoguchi’s contemporary, Ozu, was much more adept at the use of the extreme long take.
Overall, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums is a study in patience and suffering—both in the movie and watching it. I didn’t hate it, but I most assuredly didn’t love it, either.