Combustible Celluloid
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With: Shotaro Hanayagi, Kokichi Takada, Gonjuro Kawarazaki, Kakuko Mori, Yoko Umemura
Written by: Matsutaro Kawaguchi, Yoshikata Yoda, based on a novel by Shofu Muramatsu
Directed by: Kenji Mizoguchi
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 143
Date: 09/13/2016

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Act We Act

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Though largely imperceptible to the public, with critics — or at least with critics that have studied film history — there is an ongoing war over the best Japanese director: Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, or Kenji Mizoguchi. Kurosawa is by far the most popular choice, while those (like myself) that have delved deeply into Ozu have come to prefer that master filmmaker. Mizoguchi usually runs a distant third, despite championing by people like Jonathan Rosenbaum, Phillip Lopate, and Derek Malcolm. I had seen Mizoguchi's most highly acclaimed films, The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954), and greatly admired them all. I even saw Ugetsu twice. But there was still something holding me back from warmer enthusiasm.

Now I have been given a chance to see The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939) on a 2016 Criterion Blu-ray release. This time I wanted to be ready, so I did some reading of works by the three aforementioned writers as well as others. I'm not sure whether it was my research that helped, or if I was finally ready to join in with the cheerleaders, but this time I found Mizoguchi's work sublime, and truly worth celebrating.

It's true that Mizoguchi's films are more or less soap operas, or women's stories, and I tend to shy away from overwrought stories of heavy tragedies. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is no exception to this, but there are extraordinary cinematic merits to be savored here. Mizoguchi employed techniques that captured the most delicate poetry of his scenario, and makes me think that most other directors, especially in 1939, hadn't the faintest idea how to place or move their cameras. This comment is made with the full knowledge that 1939 is considered one of the finest of all movie years. (I'd put Mizoguchi and this film on a very top level, with John Ford's Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln, Howard Hawks's Only Angels Have Wings, and Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka.)

All of the writings on this film cite one early, remarkable shot. In the late 19th century, Kikunosuke (Shotaro Hanayagi) is the adopted son of a famous and legendary Kabuki actor. He was born into fame and is worshipped even though he is a terrible actor. He seems to sense this and feels a gnawing emptiness in his life. One evening, late, he comes home and finds the family wet nurse, Otoku (Kakuko Mori), outside with his baby brother. They walk from left to right as the camera tracks alongside them, looking up at them. The nighttime sound is quiet, except for the occasional baby noises and the sounds of a wind chime that Kikunosuke impulsively buys. During the scene, Otoku becomes the first person to tell Kikunosuke to his face that he's a bad actor, but that he could be a great one if he applies himself. At one point, they stop, and the camera tracks past them, waiting. A new relationship is formed over the course of this one shot.

Due to this relationship, Kikunosuke's father banishes him, and the rest of the story takes place over the ensuing years, as Kikunosuke, accompanied by the faithful and encouraging Otoku, plays increasingly dismal theater troupes. But, knowing true misery, Kikunosuke's acting improves, and then, Otoku finds a way to make a final sacrifice. This story affords Mizoguchi many opportunities for truly beautiful camera setups and movements. Like Ozu, he had a specific style based on limitations. He preferred long shots with no cuts, and no closeups, but unlike Ozu, he moved his camera almost restlessly, refusing to meditate on the drama. The camera is actively involved.

Mizoguchi always manages the correct staging and blocking as well, with dominant figures at higher positions, and sometimes important actions taking place offscreen. His genius comes in the camera moves during a scene, changing the perspective as the drama unfolds. It's difficult to imagine many young directors today paying such attention to the dramatic or emotional importance of each camera move, but it's here to be studied and enjoyed. As for me, watching The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum has re-charged my love and appreciation for the cinema.

Criterion's Blu-ray preserves a film made 78 years ago as expertly as possible. The soundtrack isn't as pristine as you might imagine, sounding more like an early 1930s Hollywood film, with bits of hiss and crackle (Japan was a few years behind the U.S. in terms of employing sound in film), but still profound. The picture, transferred in 4K, fares a bit better, with the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography arguably better represented than it has been in years. Extras are a bit skimpy, sadly, with no commentary track, but with a 22-minute video interview with the aforementioned Mr. Lopate (which does help serve to better appreciate the film), and a liner notes essay by film scholar Dudley Andrew.

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