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In Tokyo in 1888, Kikunosuke Onoue, the adoptive son of an important actor, discovers that he is praised for his acting only because he is his father's heir, and that the troupe complains how bad he is behind his back. The only person to talk to him honestly about his acting is Otoku, the wet-nurse of his adoptive father's child. She is fired by the family, and Kikunosuke is forbidden to see her, because of the gossip a relationship with a servant would cause. Kikunosuke falls in love with Otoku, and leaves home to try to make a living on his own merits outside Tokyo. He is eventually joined by Otoku, who encourages him to become a famous actor to regain the recognition of his family. Written by
The cinema of Kenji Mizoguchi certainly has its share of uninhibited feminism, but it also has its adequate share of realism. He has portrayed Japanese women, their roles and plight in traditional and orthodox Japanese society in variously diverse ways. But he never shied away from making the viewer confront the tough facts and compromise the reality of female oppression, just for the sake of happy endings. His female characters do suffer. The character of Otoku in 'The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum' is an angelic woman who pretty much sacrifices everything for her lover and in the end gets nothing in return. This constant suffering of Otoku has actually made a number reviewers criticise the film and question its agenda. But I disagree with the detractors of the film because for me, the suffering of Otoku in spite of being selfless to a fault represents Mizoguchi's criticism of society as a whole, criticism of a society which oppresses women and enslaves them. A woman can be angelic and downright subservient like Otoku, or she can be abrasive and self-serving like Ayako in 'Osaka Elegy', the patriarchal Japanese society in the end will crush her.
The camera is incredibly fluid and the movement are at times very symmetrical with a pattern to them. This symmetry of camera movement within the same scene or separate scenes reminded me of the films and camera movements of Max Ophüls. Although the blu ray print isn't that great in comparison to restored prints of other films of the same era, one can't help but notice the incredible attention to detail when it comes to the sets and how Mizoguchi uses them with his camera. There is a very noticeable reluctance to use close-up shots, which is interesting. But for the most remarkable aspect of the film in terms of visual technique is the reliance on numerous extended unbroken, long takes which are just incredibly executed and choreographed. Mizoguchi's use of space within a particular frame is genuinely incredible.
The romance between Kikunosuke and Otoku is given a layered and complex treatment by Mizoguchi. Their relationship persists for numerous years and we see the gradual changes in their relationship dynamics. Mizoguchi ornaments the film with beautiful singular moments of humanism and emotions which is scattered throughout the film. Moments like Otoku folding Kikunosuke's jacket without being asked to, Kikunosuke's brother not recognising him, Otoku sitting alone in her room in the dark,etc. are moments that will touch the heart of every sensitive viewer.
I don't think 'The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum' is a perfect film. There are aspects to the film that are a bit too simplistic and a few scenes are stretched out a bit too long for my liking. But having said that, I still consider it to be a special film. One can't help but admire the technical brilliance on show. Mizoguchi's direction is sensitive, subtle and yet complicated in the way he composes his shots and uses his sets. The film has a feminist agenda with its heart in the right place made by one of the masters of world cinema which makes it an easy recommendation.
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