Home Video Hovel: The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, by David Bax
Artists love to tell stories about the creative process. Sometimes this results in masterpieces like Barton Fink. Sometimes it leads to complete wankery like Art School Confidential. Sometimes we get something that exists mercurially between the two poles, like Synecdoche, New York. In the case of the great Kenji Mizoguchi and his The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum we find and epic-length tale of an actor and his artistic growth that isn’t actually about art at all. Instead, Mizoguchi uses the elevated visibility of an actor’s place on the stage to highlight his pet themes, exploring the friction between Japan’s lingering history and the humanistic liberalism of burgeoning modernity.
Kiku is the adopted son of a legendary kabuki actor but lacks the talent to live up to his father’s name. The only person who treats him with respect and dignity is his young nephew’s wet nurse, Otoku. She tells him to his face that he’s terrible on stage but also believes that he has the potential to improve. The two fall in love. Kiku relinquishes his family name and marries Otoku; both actions bring a large deal of shame upon his father. The film tracks Kiku’s progress and travels as well as the couple’s relationship. By the end, in fact, the movie belongs more to Otoku than to her husband.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum unfolds chiefly in long takes that, decades before the advent of the Steadicam, Mizoguchi manages to make dynamic and clever. One scene goes on at length with the camera outside, peering in at a dinner party between the slats of the balcony’s balustrade, before suddenly tracking to the left to reveal the unseen eavesdropper who’s been there the whole time. Another emotional sequence uses a cleverly constructed and bisected set to allow the camera to jump from train car to train car while remaining on a single dolly track.
Mizoguchi’s focus on form—deft and delicate yet exciting and unpredictable—presents a structuralist reflection of his subject matter. Kiku’s family belongs to a tradition in which one’s entire reputation can rise and fall on the particulars of decorum. And so Kiku must be as swift and light on his feet as the cameraman, making risky leaps and never faltering for a second. It’s a terrific trick that Mizoguchi pulls off and, as a result, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is more fleet and more emotional than its running time or its dry premise would suggest.
Criterion’s new 4K transfer bears the marks of people doing the best with what materials were available to them. There are fluctuations in the depth of the blacks and grays as well as some very mild stabilization issues. However, the most apparent detriment is the sound quality. Undoubtedly, yeoman’s work was done as usual but a significant amount of fuzz and distortion remain.
Special features included a new interview with critic Phillip Lopate and an essay by film scholar Dudley Andrew.