Kenji Mizoguchi came into his own as a director in the late 1930s with Sisters of the Gion and Osaka Elegy, both from 1936. But in 1939 he released his early masterpiece, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, a tragic tale of love and art set in the late nineteenth century. The story follows Kikunosuke, the adopted son of Japan’s most respected and beloved actor. Kiku has followed his father on the stage, dutifully playing the parts his father assigns him. He basks in the applause and drinks in the praise of everyone in the troupe, but the audiences love him for his name and the other actors know he simply can’t act. He’s terrible, but no one is honest enough to tell him he needs work to become a great actor.
That is until he meets Otoku, a wet nurse helping raise his newest young sibling. They are immediately smitten with one another, but when he asks her what she thinks about his acting, she tells him he stinks. Everyone who praises him, she tells him, only do so because of his father. He is hurt, but she argues honesty is the only way to he will ever improve. She encourages him to hone his skills, rather than resting on unearned accolades. Kiku falls in love with the woman and wants to spend his life with her, but his father won’t hear of it, dismisses the girl, and forbids Kiku to see her again. His son resists, vowing to run off with her and become a great actor without his father’s name. So, Kiku and Otoku go off to live a long life of deprivation as he slaves to become a better actor under an assumed name, assuring he will not get any undue breaks.
Mizoguchi follows the young couple over many years, through the ups and downs, soul crushing poverty, opportunities, and disappointments. Their relationship is not storybook. Often the poverty gets to Kiku, who grew up in luxury and, as he moves from one rinky-dink troupe to another, his growing sense of hopeless failure consumes him, lashing out at the woman who loves him. However, the deprivation pushes Kiku to hone his craft until he becomes the actor all the sycophants of his past life once claimed he was. Then the dilemma becomes whether he can return to his father with the woman he forbade Kiku to see.
At its base the tension in the movie is the struggle between personal liberty and social constraints, but there is a curious benefit to this conflict for an artist even though we often associate artists with a freer attitude toward life. Before he met Otoku, when Kiku had all the freedom he wanted he was never forced to question his ability and had no experiences on which to draw. Only when his father threatened to take away the woman he loved was Kiku able to face the life of want and heartache that his roles often required him to express. Never before could he truly empathize with his characters but his life with Otoku thrust him into them, branding the experiences into his subconscious ready for him to draw on on the stage. It is through the hard life he lived with Otoku that he becomes a great actor.
And here we come to the tragedy of the picture. In the end, Otoku cannot be redeemed and live a life of respectability. Like Anna Karenina, she is permanently soiled – cast off by her family, shunned by the community, she is forever the woman who ran off with a man of a higher social class and lived with him outside of marriage. And like Karenina’s Count Vronsky, Kiku merely has to leave her and all is forgiven. His name, position, and respect are all restored. Otoku understands this and, in an act of supreme sacrifice, steps aside so Kiku can have everything he wanted – professionally anyway. In most, if not all of his movies, Mizoguchi explored and lamented the degraded social status of women and in this film he pointedly shines a light on the fundamental inadequacies of a romantic relationship when one member is considered by society as lower, a less valuable member. No matter how much Kiku loves her, Otoku can never be an equal partner. This might help bring him artistic success, but it leaves him empty and Otoku ruined.
Like most of his movies, Mizoguchi deliberately paced this movie slowly without boring us. We feel as though we are watching real people make life-changing decisions, as though Mizoguchi was able to place a camera in a room and capture real dramas. This approach emotionally links us to Kiku and Otoku, making the climax all the more tragic, which could have played fairly sappy. Last Chrysanthemums has been tough to find in the U.S. – I don’t think it has been released on DVD here – though you can find it on You Tube here courtesy of Memoirevisuelle, who has quite a collection of hard to find movies posted. It is well worth seeing.