The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (Zangiku monogatari)

The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums

Now that we are together, my life is fulfilled…

The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums, by Kenji Mizoguchi, is the earliest Japanese film on the list, so if any film will give a good indication and look into the earliest of Japanese cinema, it’s this one. A simple story about love in the face of family and career, this is widely regarded as one of the earliest masterpieces of Japanese cinema. Now, I haven’t seen too many early Japanese films, of pre-1950 or so, so I can’t compare this one to the rest of the field that it came with, which is unfortunate, because with all the good will surrounding this one, I would very much like to. Still, this had quite the magical quality about it, even though everything else about the film would seem to suggest the opposite, so kudos to Mizoguchi for managing to get across his considerable talent and vision in an entertaining form.

By the way, there seems to be no universal agreement on whether the title is the above one, on the list, or The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, on Wikipedia. I’ve included both just in case anyone comes around and tries searching for either one.

Kikunosuke is the son of a famous Kabuki actor, looking to follow in his father’s footsteps. Only thing is, he’s not that good, and the only person who has ever told him so is his brother’s wet nurse, Otoku. Naturally, the frankness and honesty ends up bringing the two of them together, and Kikunosuke must decide if he wishes to stay with this woman, or remain welcome in the eyes of his family, as well as taking into account whether or not he can advance in his career if he is tied down by this woman. As befitting the earliest Japanese film on the list, the technicals are very rudimentary, which was odd as it often clashed with the production itself. The camera wasn’t of the best quality, not fully capturing the light and the frame shown in each scene, and the lighting was somewhat sparse, and much too spotlight-like rather than having the rooms look like they are naturally lit. But, as per my previous statement, one could still tell the production value in this one was much higher than you’d expect, and it’s a shame the technicals weren’t up to the same standard, since most of the production value ends up being uncaptured as a result. Much like other directors that would follow after and beside him, Mizoguchi seems obsessed with long takes, and seemingly for no other purpose other than to have long takes; there’s one near the beginning where we follow Otoku as she goes to fetch a watermelon for Kikunosuke, and she takes her sweet time, while also settling the baby she’s looking after in a bed, covering it with blankets and a mosquito net, before heading off to the kitchen, and only then does the camera cut. It’s an entirely superfluous scene, and it is longer than it needed to be, pretty much for the sake of being long. It’s not Satantango-esque, nowhere near that level, but it did repeatedly raise the question of why what I was watching didn’t end up on the cutting room floor.

I mentioned before how this one would seem, at first glance, to be a bunch of less-than-stellar components added up into some form of a film, and I want to elaborate on that. From the wonky camera angles Mizoguchi chooses to the extremely primitive musical score to the technical faults abound, there should be no right way for this to add together into a fine film, but somehow, it manages to do so, and I can’t really place why. There’s a myriad of aspects that could have contributed to the craftsmanship of this one, but for the life of me, I couldn’t come up with any. This is just an anomaly, a great film that flies in the face of everything that makes a film great, or even watchable. This is thus rather hard to recommend, as plenty of people will be turned away by almost any quality of this film, but to that I say; just see the film. Maybe this magical spell Mizoguchi casts will fall over you as well, and it’ll all be worth it in the end.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10


One thought on “The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (Zangiku monogatari)

  1. I picked up a boxset of Kenji Mizoguchi’s early films and while they are somewhat similar in style none of the other films have the magic of Zangiku Monogatari. They suffer the same faults but in those the part do not end up in something larger than the sum. I guess he had a lucky hand with this one. I liked it too.

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