Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939)

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Writer: Matsutaro Kawaguchi, Yoshikata Yoda
DP: Yozo Fuji, Minoru Miki
Editor: Koshi Kawahigashi
Score: Shiro Fukai, Senji Ito
Starring: Shotaro Hanayagi, Kokichi Takada, Gonjuro Kawarazaki
Distribution: Shochiku
Length: 2 hrs. 23 min.

Fair warning: I will spoil the ending of this movie.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums is subtle enough that the incredibly grim implications of its ending may go unnoticed.  On a purely narrative level, the ending seems to equally offer reasons to feel happy and reasons to feel bad.  However, when you consider the visual storytelling of earlier scenes, it becomes apparent that the film is structured as a vicious circle, and that its plot depicts people being denied an exit from that circle.

The film tells the story of the young couple Kikunosuke and Otoku.  Kikunosuke is an actor for a reputable kabuki house run by his adoptive father.  Otoku is a servant of Kikunosuke's family, his nephew's wet nurse.  Though Kikunosuke is allowed to perform often, and receives compliments from both his family and his father's other employees, he is not talented; when he's not present, the other characters criticize his acting and lament that his lineage makes him impossible to get rid of.  Even though Kikunosuke doesn't hear any of this directly, he's self-aware: he suspects that his performances are bad, and only wishes someone would offer him honest criticism.  His inability to act results in an inability to connect with the disingenuous communication of the people around him.

Otoku becomes the only one to be honest with him.  With no hostility whatsoever, she tells him the truth.  Her honesty causes the two to become close.  Unfortunately, because of their difference in social class, Kikunosuke's family rejects their relationship, and they leave Tokyo to fend for themselves.  Throughout the film, more and more of a burden is placed on Otoku in her attempts to support Kikunosuke as he tries to improve his acting.

When characters criticize Kikunosuke behind his back, Mizoguchi shoots from behind some obstacle. We can't see the speakers because they're hidden behind screens or the kabuki house's backstage apparati.  It emphasizes the clandestine nature of these conversations, and also makes the characters subordinate to their surroundings.  These effects are vital, as the film hinges on the concept that performative lies and strictures of courtesy are inextricably linked.  Meanwhile, Kikunosuke's most significant interactions with Otoku take place in places where they are both exposed and forced into the edges.

Mizoguchi also represents the class disparity between Kikunosuke and Otoku by their freedom to move through space.  This even occurs when they're alone together, in the scene where they begin to recognize their feelings for each other.  The camera shifts away from them for a moment, revealing a series of doorways that form layers in the frame, accenting the depth into which it recedes.  When the characters reenter the frame, Otoku moves from right to left; Kikunosuke walks all the way into the depth of the frame, passing through all the layers.

Consider Kikunosuke's goal: To become a better actor, and therefore be accepted by his peers.  We've already seen that his peers are not just competent actors, but that they also tell lies, performing because courtesy demands it.  To properly live up to his social class, Kikunosuke must develop his skills as a performer.  Otoku, on the other hand, fulfills the role she was assigned, fostering his development in an almost motherly way.

Kikunosuke's skills do eventually improve, but his family will only accept him back if he abandons Otoku.  Otoku secretly distances herself from him, and he regains his former status.  Finally, after bringing success to the kabuki house, he is able to convince his father to let him be with Otoku.  Unfortunately, due to the harsh living conditions he and Otoku were exposed to during their time away from home, Otoku is dying of an illness.  Kikunosuke is offered a place in a parade celebrating his first great performance, but decides he should see her.  She dies, and the film ends with Kikunosuke greeting the parade audience.  He's surrounded by celebratory lights as he waves at the onlookers, but there's no happiness on his face.

To put it in blunt terms, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums is a film in which a woman of lower status sacrifices her life so that a man from a high-class family can be molded to fit neatly into a suffocating structure of social norms.  In the end, Kikunosuke demonstrates that he can lie to please a crowd, but what good does that do him?  Kikunosuke gained the ability to perform, and therefore the ability to communicate with the same insincerity as everyone else.  He loses, then, the ingenuousness that was at the foundation of his relationship with Otoku.  Otoku, meanwhile, lost her life, and the film gives us no reason to believe what she went through will ever be remembered.

In the end, the two main characters, especially Otoku, sacrifice everything to perpetuate the forces that caused all their problems to begin with.  The film comes full circle, except the end lacks even the possibility of freedom that Kikunosuke and Otoku had at the beginning.  Mizoguchi appropriately represents this with grave resignation, starkly juxtaposing Otoku, lifeless on her deathbed, with Kikunosuke performing for the crowd.  The film's clarity is ultimately determined by its tone; every frame expresses some kind of dismay.

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