On the back cover of their Blu-ray release of The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, the Criterion Collection heralds the 1939 Kenji Mizoguchi film as “the first full realization of the hypnotic long takes and eloquent camera movements that would come to define the director's films”—a seductive claim, to be sure, but one with the potential to mislead. The Japanese filmmaker was experimenting with the cited aesthetic as early as 1935 with The Downfall of Osen, which withheld a close-up revelation of its titular protagonist until the tail end of a lugubrious flashback structure, while 1937's criminally underseen The Straits of Love and Hate, inspired by Leo Tolstoy's Resurrection, plays like a model for Hou Hsiao-hsien's work in its serene patience and pictorial distance. That's, of course, to account for only Mizoguchi's extant films; within the dozens undiscovered, it's reasonable to assume, given the stylistically bold temperament of something even as early as 1925's The Song of Home, that there's some sophisticated time-sculpting going on elsewhere.
What does distinguish The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, however, is the assertiveness of its stylistic deployments. In this prototypical Mizoguchian tale of lifelong female sacrifice in the male-dominated arena of kabuki theatre, camera placements are often so eccentric that we're compelled to acknowledge the directorial decision-making irrespective of how it's supporting the story. In covering, for example, a pivotal early walk-and-talk between tortured actor Kikunosuke (Shôtarô Hanayagi) and prospective love interest Otoku (Kakuko Mori), Mizoguchi attains an unreal bottom-up perspective by planting his dolly track in a carved-out ditch running parallel to the road, the extreme angle rendering his characters silhouettes against the night sky. It's a baldly attention-grabbing idea, yet what's remarkable about it, and about many similarly unorthodox framings in the film, is that form follows content in lock step: Kikunosuke and Otoku have only been demeaned up to this point in the narrative, and in this scene they're beginning to discover a mutual understanding that not only humanizes, but ennobles them to higher ground than the petty gossipers in their midst.
Such telling visual cues are critical in a film that regards its human players as nearly indistinguishable mounds of slumped robes, carefully shaped jet-black hair, and pasty white faces gliding as if on air across densely layered sets evoking Meiji-era Tokyo and Osaka. Observed from safe distances, swapping positions in background and foreground yet rarely coming within a yardstick of the camera, these ethereal figures appear as though vehicles on a zigzagging freeway, their every move carefully preplanned so as to avoid treacherously stepping out of line. Mizoguchi, meanwhile, allows himself his own coordinates, and thus reveals what other characters in the film can't see, such as in a scene when Kikunosuke's mother, Matsusuke (Kinnosuke Takamatsu), berates the lowly Otoku for carrying on an assumed tryst with her royal son. The two women are seen at first in a two-shot, kneeling in an ostensibly enclosed room, until halfway through their conversation the camera swivels away to expose eavesdroppers in adjacent rooms before settling back on the discussion at hand in a new visual orientation.
Social surveillance, real and imagined, assumes immense weight in this many-tiered world, where noble birth must beget greatness, and greatness is attained simply by unquestioning adherence to one's inherited rank. Everyone knows Kikunosuke is an actor of pedestrian ability, and yet because he's the son of a legend (Gonjurô Kawarazaki), he's addressed as “Young Master” and treated accordingly. Matsusuke's public explanation for her disapproval of his relationship with Otoku is based around the inevitable suspicions that will arise from the social gap between them, and the family chat later that evening exposes even darker shades of class bias: Her conjecture that “[Otoku] may have ulterior motives” is followed by an assurance from Matsusuke's son, Tamizô (Tamitaro Onoue), that “that's how women are.” Matsutarô Kawaguchi and Yoshikata Yoda's script is laden with such reductive assessments of human behavior that are parroted back and forth until ambiguity of intention is all but extinguished—and that's the point. Mizoguchi's characters form one mass of mutually reinforced conservatism that can't be challenged without descending to the bottom of the social order.
Kikunosuke's decision to spurn his family's pleas and run off with Otoku leaves him in one such position, and the film's narrative charts his gradual rise back to his initial position of power. The story's tragedy is that, while Otoku's sacrifices for her partner's pursuits get the thespian most of the way up, she ultimately has to be abandoned in the home stretch. Thankfully, in a gesture that crystallizes the thrust of his career up to this point and sets the tone for the deeply empathetic work that would follow, Mizoguchi is there to observe the fallout of quiet devastation that occurs behind closed doors, skewing his attention toward Otoku as Kikunosuke returns years later to his father with fresh accolades from performances in Osaka and Nagoya. Here, in lengthy deep-space compositions that find Otoku frozen in defeated positions in sparse interiors, the snubbed peasant's pain is inscribed onto the screen with the directness and force of an old Japanese woodblock carving. Mizoguchi's visual expression is as frank and lucid as his characters' speech, only he's articulating a different truth: that of the forgotten.
With films of this vintage, it's always tough to know short of consulting a print about what kind of state the available material was in when restoration work began, so benefit of the doubt should typically be granted. In The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum's case, the transferring process doesn't appear to have been a walk in the park, particularly when the resulting image is compared to that of other recent releases from the Criterion Collection. Details are often hazy, the few close-ups are disappointingly soft, and contrast is underwhelming. The soundtrack, clogged up by a persistent mid-rangy tape hiss, fares a bit worse, with voices either harsh or slightly upstaged by the unwanted noise. Given Criterion's track record, it's safe to assume they did the best with they had, and at the very least this new offering vastly betters the previous home-video versions of the film.
The only visual supplement provided, Phillip Lopate's overview of Kenji Mizoguchi's career and The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum in particular, is a clear-headed, if a bit run-of-the-mill, analysis that gives special attention to the staging of key scenes and to the complicated discourse around Mizoguchi's relationship to women. Yale film professor Dudley Andrew offers greater insights in the exhaustive liner notes, which investigate the phenomenon of Mizoguchi's artistic genius within the reigning ideology of Japan and touch rewardingly on the film's formal rhymes and its aesthetic analogues to kabuki.
As a towering early example of Kenji Mizoguchi's directorial and dramatic prowess, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum probably deserves a more robust treatment than what Criterion musters here.