Tragedy into Form, Form as Cultural Expression: On Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939)

By 1939, in the work of Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi (1898-1956), the cinema achieved a measure of formal brilliance and complexity that it has very rarely matched, and still hasn’t surpassed, in the nearly eighty years since. With The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939), which is often considered the pinnacle of the director’s prewar career, and one of the last masterpieces of a great golden age of Japanese film, Mizoguchi perfected a visual language and style that drew equally on the specificity of Japanese architecture, picture scrolls, kabuki stagecraft, and certain of the more experimental aspects of late silent and early sound Hollywood filmmaking. What resulted was a synthetic art–with a powerful cinematic specificity–that at once was inspired by the West and still remains unimaginable outside its Japanese and prewar historical contexts. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is also a work of grand intelligence where the particular form crafted by the director perfectly suits the thematic content of its boundlessly tragic story.

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Set within the Meiji period in late nineteenth century Tokyo, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum tells the story of Kikunosuke “Kiku” Onoue (Shôtarô Hanayagi), the adopted son of great actor Kikugoro Onoue (Gonjurô Kawarazaki)–who in reality was one of the most famous kabuki performers of the era. Kiku, who specializes as an onnagata (men who play women’s roles), is an object of private ridicule for his lousy acting. When his younger brother’s nursemaid,  Otoku (Kakuko Mori), expresses this commonly held–though frequently withheld–opinion, Kiku dedicates himself to becoming a great actor in his own right. He also develops romantic feelings for the uncommonly honest young woman. Eventually, his attachment to Otoku will lead Kiku to sever ties with his adopted family and set out on his own in Osaka, where he will hone his craft as an actor at a local theater–before setting out on the road with a traveling theater troupe. Years pass in obscurity and poverty as Kiku awaits his break with the perpetually loyal, and increasingly ill Otoku, always by his side. Ultimately, the actor is presented with the opportunity to reconcile with his wealthy family, having developed into a great actor through years of hard work (and of course with Otoku’s constant support). When Kiku, in the film’s final act, returns in glory to Osaka, having become the man that Otoku believed he could be all along, she experiences a much different fate, being a prisoner to her lower class, and to a female gender that is compelled to suffer for the dreams of the men they love.

(As a biographical footnote, Mizoguchi’s older sister was effectively forced to become a geisha to support her brother and struggling family–a traumatic event that many have since read as an explanation for the director’s career-spanning focus on the suffering and sacrifices of women.)

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Before detailing the ways in which Mizoguchi enhances and reproduces the subject matter of his film through his directorial choices, it is first necessary to contextualize his visual filmmaking within the specific contexts identified at the beginning, as a product of the various historical and cultural currents that converge in this film. 

The first, and in many ways the most conspicuous, are the unique features of Japanese architecture in which Mizoguchi sets his narrative. As The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum opens, we are presented with a hive-like backstage space that immediately contextualizes the story within the world of kabuki theater. From the first, Mizoguchi sets his camera in motion, panning and tracking with his mobile performers as they navigate his opening scene’s multi-level setting. As is the director’s custom throughout the film, the camera consistently remains at some distance from his human subjects, framing the moving bodies within volumetric spaces that are defined and divided by wooden beams, ropes, and balustrades in this early set-piece.

After a short segment within the space of the theater itself, one that discloses and highlights the creative spectacle of nineteenth century kabuki stagecraft, Mizoguchi presents a group of Kiku’s fellow performers, all arranged along a single axis that is virtually parallel to the viewer’s plane, and is aggressively framed and masked by the shadowy backstage architecture. As soon as they are finished making fun of their colleague, the director’s camera cranes down to the arriving Kiku who will receive none of their–or his father’s–vociferous criticism, at least to his face. In this particular instance, the director’s unconventional organization of characters along a single axis allows the filmmaker to show both the gossiping actors, and the source of their gossip, Kiku, within a single, elegant, downwardly mobile shot. He maintains the integrity of the visual field, making it clear where precisely the two spaces exist in relation to one another, while never breaking the unity of the shot. 

Of course, Kiku will hear put downs of his performance, as the director’s camera serves to create spaces that combine the on-screen visual field with adjacent off-camera spaces into which the narrative extends–in a manner not dissimilar to Mizoguchi-favorite Ernst Lubitsch’s silent comedies of misunderstanding (such as Lady Windermere’s Fan, 1925)–and from which characters are able to eavesdrop. Whether it is for just such moments when one character overhears another telling something in secret, or for those when somebody, often initially unseen, is being addressed off-screen (and will only be revealed following a sudden, emphatic panning-take), Mizoguchi’s film spreads beyond the limits of the frame. The world, which is to say the filmmaker’s art, does not end with what we see, or even with what we hear, but rather exists in a robust combination of visible and invisible, audible and inaudible, that marks the material medium’s unique formal specificity. The cinema is both the art of the tangible index, and also the unseen or heard reality that continues to exist in relation to what appears on screen.

When the film narrative moves subsequently into Kiku’s family home, the specificity of Japanese architecture becomes even more pronounced, with the film’s subjects spreading out in conservation on tatami mats, and filling (or not filling) the spaces created by the paper moveable walls–all while Mizoguchi’s camera adopts a variety of low and especially high angles that serve to register multiple receding planes in a single visual field. The presence of the open screens is particularly important as we are able to glance into multiple adjacent rooms within a single shot–a strategy that is tailor-made for Kiku and others to eavesdrop or to overhear conversations in nearby rooms. Mizoguchi’s particular division of space here into successive planes anticipates Orson Welles and Gregg Toland’s consequent experiments in deep-focus photography in much the same manner as Jean Renoir’s equally fluid work that same year in The Rules of the Game (1939); for Mizoguchi, as for Renoir, their ambition simply outstrips the technology at their disposal. 

Within the spaces of these chambers, Mizoguchi consistently unbalances his compositions, leaving open large areas of negative space that doubly serve both cultural and narrative purposes: for the former, they suggest the Japanese “aesthetic ideal of emptiness” that manifests itself throughout Japanese architecture, and is considered fundamental to Japanese concepts of beauty and design.  In these partially empty rooms, we are made to look at nothing, to absence rather than presence. In the case of the latter, which is to say its narrative function, the director’s use of negative space forces the viewer to attend to the place in the frame where new characters will appear (and thus balance the composition). We perceive the lack he has created, in other words, a lack that is fundamental to Japanese aesthetics, and wait for it to be filled with story. Though it is a culturally specific form of storytelling, in other words, that takes the place of analytic editing–Mizoguchi does not simply cut to arriving new characters; he insists on emphasizing the negative or empty space of the room–it is also a form borrowed quite directly from another of the director’s favorite Hollywood filmmakers, Josef von Sternberg (see especially The Scarlet Empress, 1934). 

In the spatial context of the Japanese home with its moveable walls, a form of construction that responds to the changing of the seasons, Mizoguchi’s camera again mobilizes frequently, as it both tracks with his actors as they move room to room, and also independently as the narrative moves from one set of characters to another. Once again, Mizoguchi favors spatial integrity in his series of long, unbroken takes over the classical fragmentation and the analytic division of space that was by the late 1930s an international norm. Searching for an explanation for Mizoguchi’s radical departure from more conventional approaches to visual storytelling in this sense, we find another essential cultural context that has been much remarked upon in connection with the director’s films: the inspiration of the emakimono or horizontal “picture scroll.” A narrative art form where the viewer beholds a segment at a time, reading the unrolled image from right to left in the Japanese manner, the picture scroll rhymes with the director’s often horizontal organization of the picture plane, disclosed, over the course of a single unfolding shot, with the pace of the moving performers guiding a tracking or panning camera. Of particular note is the first, long-take conversation between Kiku and Otoku, which the director shoots from a conspicuously low angle along a stretch or road. Set at night, it is almost as if the two romantic leads walk back and forth across the unrolled surface of the picture roll, or unrolling the scroll as they slowly move in unison. 

While some of these same storytelling approaches likewise materialize when the film moves on stage, for the theatrical performances within the film that thematically echo Kiku’s development as an actor and the restoration of his relationship with his father–Mizoguchi notably includes a scene from Yotsuya Kaidan, which features a lion and his two cubs–the director also cuts between various, and at times quite remote vantages of the stage space, breaking up the action (in a non-theatrical manner) and adopting distant and even obscured viewing angles that are frequently less revealing than those shared by the audience. This is simply to say that Mizoguchi breaks from filmed kabuki theater, despite the film’s storytelling framework, opting for something both more traditional in the manner noted above, that of the picture scroll, and also more radical and at times disorienting, especially on the level of camera placement. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum never takes the expected visual path, whether that’s classical, Hollywood-style editing or filmed theater. Mizoguchi no less than reinvents the very language of film in The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum.

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Whether we are thus watching the spectacle of the kabuki stage or the domestic drama that he stages on tatami mats and between sliding doors, a principle of distance unifies The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum‘s approach to narratology. Mizoguchi refuses to magnify or underline his heavily melodramatic scenario through conventionally dramatic close-ups: the film director restricts himself, he refuses one of the more conventional and recognizable dramatic strategies of classical film practice, just as he departs from theater, opting instead for the formidable dramatic power of his scenario to move the viewer. The net effect of the director’s use of the long shot is the sense of an immutable or unchangeable fate, of a way things are and have to be that provides the basis for the filmmaker’s subject matter. There is nothing that can be done–by character, artist or viewer–that can redirect or prevent Otoku’s tragic fate, an end that is dictated not by flaw or personality but by the very structures of Japanese society from which the heroine cannot, by definition, escape. She can never share in Kiku’s glory, a point that the filmmaker makes emphatically across a series of juxtaposed, crosscut set-ups that maintain the same simultaneity of multiple, concurrent spaces that the director’s fluid camera technique provides elsewhere. 

Ultimately, the director’s elaborate use of highly choreographed long-takes, siblings to his long shots, are especially well suited to the open and adaptable floor plans of domestic Japanese architecture, while once again inscribing a visual tradition that was born in horizontal picture scrolls. They also serve a thematic end: to formally communicate the passage of time that likewise conspires to ensure a tragic end to Otosku’s life. Form, in this sense, is just as calibrated to the filmmaker’s subject matter in The  Story of the Last Chrysanthemum as it is a reflection of his cultural circumstances and his painterly and cinematic art historical sources. That both are equally true in this instance is what makes this pinnacle of prewar filmmaking one of the enduring masterpieces of the art form, no less than his sublime postwar tragedies, Ugetsu (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954), and a fitting culmination to the spirit of experimentation that elevated Japanese cinema throughout its early sound years.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum screens once in a 4K digital restoration on Friday, March 24 at 5:30 pm. For tickets and more information, click here; to learn more about the remaining seven titles in “Kurosawa/Mizoguchi,” click on this link.