A troubled actor attempts to redeem himself for his famous father in “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum,” directed by Kenji Mizoguchi and released in 1939. Mizoguchi, a prolific silent film director who presided over more than 90 films, is generally regarded as the third master in a Japanese movie pantheon that also includes Akira Kurosawa and Yasuhirô Oju. He’s an exciting discovery for me and hopefully I can watch more of his movies soon.
In The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, set in 1885, Shôtarô Hanayagi plays the acting son (Kikunosuke) of a famous Kabuki actor, Kikugoro (Gonjurô Kawarazaki). His family expects great things from him, but he does not work on his craft and spends too much time with geisha girls. Despite his failing artistry, he constantly receives flattering comments from the geisha girls, fellow actors and members of the public. Kikugoro wants to keep a tighter rein on him but the stubborn Kikunosuke does things his way.
One day, Kikunosuke has a discussion with the family wetnurse, Otoku (Kakuko Mori). Her frank and biting criticism of his art makes him respect her, and he immediately wants to marry her. Of course, Kikunosuke’s father and rest of his family would never consent to let him run off with a servant, but does it anyway. This brings shame to the family and leads to Kikunosuke spending many years as an itinerant actor in the far-flung provinces of Japan. Kikunosuke experiences great hardship but continues to defy his father and stay with Otoku despite assurances from the family that abandonment of his wife and an apology would make things right.
I don’t know where the title comes from, but it probably has something to do with the perseverance of a strong flower (Otoku and Kikunosuke’s love) that glows until the very end. Chrysanthemums are not mentioned at all in the film but Japanese audiences would probably get the inference. The film doesn’t show a lot of scenes involving Kabuki Theater since it’s basically a backstage drama and coming of age story about the development of an actor. However, Kikunosuke’s chance to redeem himself provides us with an extended Kabuki scene full of grace and poetry as he plays a cherry tree menaced by an ax-wielding lumberjack.
This example of Mizoguchi’s work seems quite different than early Ozu, a director I highly admire as a silent filmmaker. Mizoguchi’s long takes are quite different from Ozu’s much busier camera during the silent period, but later Ozu seemed to slow his scenes down, especially in his “Noriko Trilogy” movies of the late 1940s and early 1950s. I’m hoping some of Mizoguchi’s silent work shows up at silent film festivals soon.