After earning a high spot in the illustrious Sight & Sound poll, Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum had lofty expectations to meet for this humble reviewer, especially since Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu sits high atop my favorites list. Unfortunately, partially due to excessive expectations, The Story of the Last Chrystanthemum is a crushing disappointment, one that brews a routine narrative while failing to add the requisite spicy panache to the pot. Lest my harsh comments be misleading…this is a good movie, but I admit to being baffled by its inclusion in discussions of Mizoguchi’s best work, let alone the greatest films of all-time. Where Sansho the Bailiff and Ugetsu forge thick atmospheres enhanced by elegant compositions, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum often feels merely adequate. Combined with the pedestrian storyline, the film shows Mizoguchi at his most mediocre. (His work is never bad.)
The opening sequences introduce us to Kikunosuke, son of the legendary actor Kikugoru and an aspiring performer himself. Kikunosuke’s talents are minimal but because of his father’s reputation and social status, he’s constantly pampered and falsely praised. Only Toku, the nurse of his brother’s child, believes in Kikunosuke enough to be straightforward with him. She alerts him to the backstabbing and deceit during one of the pictures’ visual highlights, a gorgeous tracking shot from about medium length. Following this conversation, Toku is relieved of her duties as the nurse because of family concerns about the budding, socially inappropriate relationship, and Kikunosuke passionately chooses to leave his career and home for the woman whose honesty has caused him to love her.
Until this point, things move smoothly, but the next hour sharply declines in quality: the story moves sluggishly, characters interact, women scurry around, the camera zooms out and farther out, but none of it ever draws us in. It’s just there. Additionally, the ending is overly melodramatic. Consider the final shots here, where Toku pours her heart out to Kikunosuke about how she “knew he’d be a great actor, etc.” First of all, this scene could easily be predicted early on. Secondly, it’s extremely sentimental, and worsened by a cheesy score. Contrast this to the final shot in Ugetsu, filmed 14 years later. The child runs to his mother’s grave with a bowl of food, and bows to it as the camera fades out. This child, who barely seems alive during most of the film until that point, says more with this one action then the entire final scene of Chrysanthemum. In my opinion, the last fifteen minutes of Ugetsu (particularly the aforementioned penultimate shot) are among the most powerful in all of cinema, whereas the conclusion of Chrysanthemum lacks energy and originality. Mizoguchi’s “girl giving the noble man reason to live” theme was done much more effectively in Princess Yang Kwei Fei, where it fluidly developed from firmly developed characters.
Some of Mizoguchi’s composition choices are in error as well, particularly the climactic kabuki scene. We, along with Kikunosuke’s family, are supposedly witnessing his coming-out party as a performer. Unfortunately, while Mizoguchi’s long shots are usually graceful and hypnotic, his eschewing of close-ups here saps all the power from the experience, and at a time when we’re supposed to be impressed by Kikunosuke’s radical improvement as an actor. Instead, the extreme long shots leave us emotionally distant—and not in a positive, Bressonian fashion. Somehow, I doubt this is what Mizoguchi had in mind when forging the finale.