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This key work in the development of Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi has been hailed as his first masterpiece. Its tale of a serving woman who sacrifices everything to advance the career of her lover, a more highly born Kabuki actor, reflects two of his most prominent themes, the battle against social limitations and the oppression of women. Stylistically, it represents the first flowering of his trademark style, the use of long takes and fluid traveling shots to provide an almost invisible window into the lives of his characters. Although he had begun developing that style in his silent films, most of which are now lost, and started using it more extensively in his 1936 films Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion, this 1939 feature was the first to be almost entirely shaped by his personal approach to filmmaking.
Shotaro Hanayagi stars as the adopted son of a famous actor (Gonjuro Kawarazaki) in late 19th century Tokyo. Although far from a proficient actor, the young man is praised by all around him because of his family position. Only his newborn brother's nurse (Kakuko Mori) has the honesty to tell him the truth, which forges a bond between them that defies social convention. With her encouragement, he decides to strike out on his own to see if he truly can master the art of Kabuki. Adding to his quest for identity is the hope that if he becomes famous, he can defy class barriers to marry Mori, who has lost her job because of her growing romance with the young man. Their life together is a tale of sacrifice, with Mori giving up everything to help her lover find himself.
Mizoguchi chose to adapt Shofu Muramatsu's popular novel as a reaction against Japan's growing militarism. At the time, filmmakers were encouraged to make movies set in the Edo era that began in the 17th century, a period characterized by unbreakable traditions, military power and isolationism. Like many more rebellious Japanese filmmakers of the '30s, Mizoguchi preferred to set his historical films in the Meiji era of the late 19th century, when Japan was making the transition from a closed feudal society to more modern ways. For him that period was more compatible with his interest in the decay of tradition and his innate feminism, bred by a childhood of suffering under an abusive father and his own salvation through the sacrifices of his sister Suzu, who had been sold into geishadom after a failed business venture left their father virtually penniless.
At 140 minutes, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums was the longest sound film Mizoguchi had made to that time. In part, that's a natural function of its story, which follows Hanayagi and Mori through a series of trials as he rebuilds his career with various rural theatrical companies. But it's also a result of his long takes, which set a more leisurely pace for the story telling. The film contains less than half as many shots as a typical Hollywood film of its length, with most scenes featuring only three or four shots. For the family argument that culminates in Hanayagi's going out on his own, Mizoguchi uses a single nine-minute take that follows the characters through two rooms in their house, creating a riveting sequence of compositions that capture their shifting moods, from the father's anger to the mother's desolation when her son leaves.
With the director's use of long takes and avoidance of close ups, the emphasis rests soundly on the passions of his leading players. Mizoguchi reveals those through expressive staging. When Mori first tells Hanayagi that his career is built on his father's name, the director stages the scene as a long stroll in the moonlight. Throughout the scene, their positions represent their social relationship, their growing closeness and Hanayagi's final realization of the truth in her assessment of his failures as an actor. The director also subtly alters his camera angles throughout the film, shifting from low-angle to high-angle shots of Hanayagi as he gives up his life of prosperity and faces the struggles of any fledgling actor on the road. Mizoguchi only rarely departs from his trademark long takes, most notably for the Kabuki scenes that punctuate the film, revealing Hanayagi's growth as an actor, and the final sequence that seals the leading couple's fates. When he cuts to the final, medium shot of his leading man, the effect is emotionally devastating both through the strength of Hanayagi's acting and the unexpected closer vantage point.
It takes strong actors to help an artistic balancing act like this, and Mizoguchi had them in Hanayagi and Mori. This was the first film for stage actor Hanayagi, who would star for the director again in 1945's The Sword. Both he and his leading lady would only appear in three movies. Mori would eventually give up acting to write, with her novel Joyu inspiring a 1956 film from Kaneto Shindo.
Like most of the Japanese films of its era, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums was relatively unknown outside of Japan. It was not until the postwar era, when a series of international successes from Mizoguchi, Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu began appearing at film festivals, that the world became aware of the rich Japanese tradition in film. Mizoguchi proved particularly popular at the Venice Film Festival, where he won back-to-back Golden Lions for Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954). Film critics, particularly the French critics writing for Cahiers du Cinema, hailed him as a master and spearheaded a rediscovery of earlier works like The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums. The film finally premiered in the U.S. in 1979, 40 years after its initial release in Japan.
Producer: Shintaro Shirai
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Screenplay: Matsutaro Kawaguchi, Yoshikata Yoda
Based on the novel by Shofu Muramatsu
Cinematography: Yozo Fuji, Minoru Miki
Score: Shiro Fukai, Senji Ito
Cast: Shotaro Hanayagi (Kikunosuke Onoue), Kokichi Takada (Fukusuke Nakamura), Gonjuro Kawarazaki (Kikugoro Onoue), Kakuko Mori (Otoku), Tokusaburo Arashi (Shikan Nakamura), Yoko Umemura (Osata).