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The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum

(1939) **** Unrated
148 min. Films Inc. Director: Kenji Mizoguchi. Cast: Shôtarô Hanayagi, Kôkichi Takada, Ryôtarô Kawanami.

/content/films/4965/1.jpgOver a long period of time and at a great cost, director Kenji Mizoguchi developed a mastery of film language (according to Mizoguchi, it took him thirteen years of filmmaking to begin to achieve satisfactory results). His trajectory mirrors that of the leading male character in Mizoguchi's The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum: a Meiji-period Kabuki actor who struggles his way through the evolution of his craft toward a dream of success and adulation. There's a strong case to made, however, that Mizoguchi's sympathies truly lie with the actor's wife, who emerges through force of will as the tragic hero of the tale.

Screenwriters Matsutaro Kawaguchi and Yoshikata Yoda based their script for The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum on a shinpa play that was, in turn, based on a novel by Shôfû Muramatsu. The original source is theatrical history, further pushed into theatrical legend through its magisterial treatment by Mizoguchi. Set in 1885, the story begins with theatrical spectacle on "the day of storms": Kikunosuke "Kiku" Onoe VI (Shôtarô Hanayagi, plucked from the shinpa stage) giving a hammy performance and being derided behind his back. The most significant criticism comes from Kiku's adoptive father Kikugoro Onoe V (Gonjurô Kawarazaki), but he's convinced, for now, to allow his apprentice to believe he's performing well, so as not to harm his confidence. Only one person will tell the truth to his face: his baby brother's wet nurse Otoku (Kakuko Mori).

Amid all of the traditional trappings, the film's psychological realism is striking: knocked briefly out of his self-absorption, Kiku appreciates Otoku's honesty and what she immediately chases it with, what she later describes as "sympathy and encouragement, like a nursemaid to his art." What follows is a melodrama akin to a Japanese There's No Business Like Show Business or A Star Is Born. When gossip emerges about the unseemly class gap between himself and Otoku, Kiku must choose between a life with his love and the promise of his Kabuki inheritance as Kikugoro's presumptive theatrical heir. The shinpa play becomes a shinpa film and, indeed, a Mizoguchi film, concerned as it is with women's suffering and sacrifice. As for the romance, it's compromised by Kiku's weakness of character: in some ways heartwarming, Otoku's love is also disturbing and, yes, tragic in a feminist context. Although Otoku avers, "I'm just a poor mapmaker's daughter," the question hangs in the air: can Kiku ever be worthy of her?

The story, the effective acting, and the period-specific recreations of Kabuki would be enough for most films, but this one has Mizoguchi behind the camera, applying his rigorous formalism. With brilliant command over composition as a major contributor to storytelling, he evokes traditional forms (like the art of the scroll, mirrored in tracking shots) while innovating new ones, such as his striking positioning of high or low angles to comment on the action or enhance the effects of the architecture of his sets. Mizoguchi's consistent use of long takes for most of the film (with many shots lasting upwards of five minutes) sets up the crucial theatrical sequence late in the film that makes brilliant use of editing to reveal persepctives on Kiku's theatrical triumph, most significantly, the subtle but powerful placement of Otoku beneath the stage as she prays for his success, the wind beneath not his wings, but his center stage.

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Aspect ratios: 1.37:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: LPCM 1.0

Street date: 9/13/2016

Distributor: The Criterion Collection

Criterion's Blu-ray edition of The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum derives from a 4K digital restoration unveiled earlier this year. It's fair to assume that, barring the discovery of improved elements, this is a definitive presentation of the film. Detail is much improved from what viewers have come to expect of the 1939 film in recent decades, but this is still an image that tends to be noticeably soft. Grain retains a natural appearance, and contrast and black level are well-calibrated. The image is steady and clean (one scene has a couple of jump cuts in the middle of a train scene that appear to be lost frames, but it is the exception), and previous signs of print damage have been minimized or erased using digital tools. The LPCM Mono soundtrack also makes the most of the original audio: the track shows its vintage (the dynamic range is pretty flat), but it's also reasonably clean and clear.

The disc's sole bonus feature is an interesting new interview with critic "Phillip Lopate" (21:19, HD) discussing the film's place in Mizoguchi's output and the evolution of his style, the story's development from novel to play to film, archetypes and themes in Mizoguchi's oeuvre and Chrysanthemum, and schools of thought on whether Mizoguchi's films are proto-feminist or anti-feminist.

The package includes a pamphlet with film credits, stills, tech specs, and an essay by film scholar Dudley Andrew.


Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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