In late nineteenth-century Tokyo, young kabuki actor Kikunosuke meets Otoku, his baby brother’s wet nurse. Otoku candidly tells him how bad his acting is; her honesty impresses him, and love and trust develops between the two. Kikunosuke’s adoptive father and mentor, the great Kikugoro V, however, does not approve of their relationship, let alone their marriage, and disowns him. Kikunosuke starts afresh in the Osaka kabuki world. One year later, Otoku joins him. Four years pass. Kikunosuke now plays in travelling troupes and, even if his acting itself has improved, the couple struggle to survive and often quarrel. She confides in Fuku, Kikunosuke’s friend and fellow kabuki actor of privilege. Fuku and the impresario Morita promise Otoku to give Kikunosuke a chance in exchange for her leaving him. Kikunosuke makes a spectacular comeback performance and is received by his family in Tokyo, and Otoku disappears. Several months later, when Kikunosuke, together with his family, visits Osaka for a triumphant tour, he finally reunites with Otoku on her deathbed. While he parades in the procession boat and greets the public, she takes her last breath.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is, as the synopsis shows, a quintessential backstage melodrama. And yet, it goes far beyond that in two respects. First, aesthetically, the film has been celebrated as one of the high points of Kenji Mizoguchi’s career and one of the landmarks of Japanese cinema. It systematically draws on long takes and long shots, developing an elaborate mise en scène style within the spatiotemporal continuum. Formalist film scholars have argued that this style produces ‘decentring’ effects that challenge the classical Hollywood paradigm that is predominantly motivated by character psychology (Burch 1979: 230–6; Bordwell 1983; Kirihara 1992: 137–57). The director’s recourse to a film style that could hinder the spectator’s emotional involvement with the characters produced fascinating disjunctions with the story, which was remade twice in the post-Second World War period as straightforward melodrama (director Koji Shima, 1956; director Hideo Ooba, 1963).
Second, historically, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum marked a turning point in Japanese film history. On the one hand, it showed off what the national cinema’s first ‘golden age’ in the 1930s had achieved in its technical bravura, psychological complexity, and exquisite recreation of historical settings. At its closing moment, the ‘cinema of flourishes’ (Bordwell 1992: 328–46) celebrated its audacity and maturity through an adult melodrama set in the world of performing arts. On the other hand, the militarist government and its ideologues praised and promoted The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum as a model film that inaugurated a new era, selecting it for the first Minister of Education prize. Indeed, the Film Law (Eigahô) that legislated for the state’s intervention in film culture and industry came into effect on 1 October 1939, just ten days before the film’s release.
At various levels, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is split into polarities: the detached or even alienating style and the melodramatic mode, entertainment and propaganda, rebellion against and endorsement of the ‘traditional’ family system. These seemingly contradictory polarities are all connected to a historically specific configuration of high/low and art/entertainment in Japan in 1939. A close look at this configuration reveals why this film succeeded as a quality film with mass-appeal on all conceivable fronts – at the box office, in critical reception, and at the Ministry of Education.
Furthermore, the film’s negotiations of high and low and different value systems resulted in its complex representation of family and gender issues. The film acknowledges and sympathetically portrays the hero Kikunosuke’s revolt against kabuki’s patrimony system and his desire for romantic love and independence, and yet, in the end, it seems, embraces his return to the family’s tradition. Otoku, on the one hand, has been called a quintessentially self-sacrificing heroine of melodrama.1 On the other hand, perceptive critics have noted her strength, rebellion, and far-sightedness (Ehrlich 1989: 156). She is the one who educates Kikunosuke and shapes his acting career; she is bold enough to reason with her master and mistress.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum was based on a true story about the household of Kikugoro V (1844–1903), one of the most celebrated actors of modern kabuki history. In fact, the real-life Kikunosuke Onoe (1868–1897) did not live long enough to become a true master after he made a comeback and parted with Otoku as depicted at the end of the film. Instead, the baby Ko in the film grew up to become Kikugoro VI (1884–1949) and was at the prime of his magnificent career when the film was made. Shofu Muramatsu’s short story about the tragic romance of Kikunosuke and Otoku, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Zangiku monogatari), was immediately adapted for shinpa production in 1937. Shinpa is a modern theatrical form, stylistically an amalgam of kabuki and Western bourgeois theatre. While most shinpa plays are domestic melodramas set in modern times (post-1868 Meiji Restoration) with more or less colloquial dialogue, they retain female impersonators and components of dance-based spectacles like kabuki. The shinpa version, featuring Shotaro Hanayagi and Yaeko Mizutani, the two top stars of the troupe, proved immensely popular.2 Thus, from the start, the film version, produced at Shochiku, a company that virtually monopolised kabuki exhibition, was conceived as an intermedial project that embraced and capitalised on multiple references to theatrical traditions of Japanese modernity.
At the time of its release, the media celebrated that the film version made Hanayagi’s first screen performance possible. Film industry and culture hoped that the shinpa-film collaboration like this would broaden Japanese films’ audience, which had been predominantly young and working class, to include middle-class adults such as shinpa connoisseurs.3 In the mid-1930s the Japanese government started its program of active involvement with and reform of the film industry, a program that eventually materialised as the 1939 Film Law. Japan had a long history of film censorship and regulation, and, since 1925, had established a centralised censorship system at the Home Ministry. Yet, as historian Atsuko Kato demonstrates, the mid-1930s program differed from earlier practice in two respects. First, the new national policy aimed at controlling, regulating, and developing the film industry as an industry, rather than censoring individual films. Second, it acknowledged cinema as a legitimate sphere of cultural production with potential use value for enlightenment and propaganda, rather than as mere entertainment. Japan started the invasion of China in 1931, and its growing international visibility and self-consciousness as an Asian empire motivated the state to intervene in the production of a national image for both domestic and international audiences.4 To be sure, making the licensing of all the film personnel as well as pre-production censorship of all the scripts mandatory, the Film Law was an oppressive state apparatus, as many filmmakers and critics liked to point out in the post-war period; and yet, in 1939, the film industry embraced this ‘first cultural legislation’ as the state’s gesture of recognition and legitimisation.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, made at the time of the Film Law’s promulgation, embodied its ideal of uplift and reform. Film critics agreed that its unconventionally long takes did not bother them, since they were combined with rich mise en scène and worked to show the actors beautifully, covering the flaws of their appearance (Hanayagi was 20 years older than the role, and Mori was considered plain). A writer, at the end of an essay praising the film’s exquisite handling of a popular subject matter, an actor’s life, commented on a scene at the movie theatre: two young army officers whispering, ‘It’s good, isn’t it?’, with tears in their eyes, when Otoku comes back to Kikunosuke to apologise after their fight in a rain-leaking rural theatre.5 The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum was not received as an esoteric work, but highly praised as a popular film of quality.
The complex mise en scène and camera movement in the shot-sequence where Kikugoro disowns Kikunosuke has produced fine-grained analyses by formalist film scholars (Burch 1979: 233; Kirihara 1992: 146; Davis 1996: 118–20). This is arguably one of the best-discussed, albeit not best-known, sequences of any Japanese film. The sequence, in effect, showcases how Mizoguchi orchestrated actors’ gestures and movements within multiple planes and separate spaces by specifically cinematic means of aperture shooting and the camera’s mobility, precisely because it was a film about the world of kabuki enacted by shinpa and kabuki actors.
The sequence in question takes place in Kikugoro’s mansion. Kikunosuke, having just returned from a clandestine meeting with Otoku, is summoned to the living room (zashiki) where Kikugoro awaits. His stepmother Sato and his birth brother and kabuki musician Enju are also present at this father-son meeting, acting as mediators. The sixminute long take can be divided into three phases. (1) Kikugoro examines Kikunosuke’s true intention in the living room; (2) Enju and Sato attempt to persuade Kikunosuke to give up Otoku in an adjacent room; (3) Kikunosuke returns to the living room, confronts Kikugoro, and begs him to approve his relationship with Otoku. The sequence abruptly ends with Kikunosuke’s exit, which takes place offscreen and is suggested by the rustling of clothing and the clatter of the door that follow a tense exchange between father and son, and finally by the opened door revealed by the panning camera.
In this sequence, Mizoguchi deliberately allocates the off-screen space to the patriarch Kikugoro. In (1), he initially remains offscreen, and even after the camera reveals his dominating presence, Enju often blocks our view of him; in most of (2), the camera captures Kikunosuke, Sato, and Enju retreating to the next room, supposedly in order to discuss the matter more frankly. Despite, or rather because of the invisibility, his offscreen presence, invoked by his short speeches delivered in a brisk Tokyo dialect, his knocking of his pipe against the ashtray, and, above all, the silence, is at the centre of the whole mise en scène in this long take. It manipulates the economy of sympathy between the characters, between the characters and the spectator. While the spectatorial sympathy stays with Kikunosuke throughout the shot, we feel Sato’s fear of Kikugoro’s reaction and worry about its consequences most acutely because the camera shows her anxious face and repeated glances at the offscreen space. Darrell Davis, having described this shot with great care, remarks: ‘The displaced camerawork in this instance is … an interrogation of the nature of observation, sympathy, and judgment’ (Davis 1996: 120). In other words, Mizoguchi’s mise en scène and the camera enable the spectator to examine and feel conflicting values and sentiments, without total absorption into any one of them.
Whether The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum criticises or endorses conservative values of the ‘traditional’ family is an interesting question. Feminist sociologists and historians have shown that the household (ie) system itself was not an abiding tradition but a modern invention of the Meiji era. Furthermore, in this film, the fact that family in the kabuki world is a professional unit with a hierarchical structure of mentor/disciple, maintained through the frequent practice of adoption, as in the case of Kikunosuke, complicates the matter. Consequently, unlike the classical Hollywood musical in which the protagonist’s pursuit of professional success and romantic love produces a dual-focus narrative that typically converges in the creation of a couple (Altman 1987: 16–58), in geidomono, that is, melodrama set in the world of performing arts in the Meiji or Tokugawa period, romantic love sharply contradicts both his/her professional life and family. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum and Mikio Naruse’s Tsuruhachi and Tsurujirô (1938) were largely responsible for establishing geido-mono as popular entertainment at the time of mobilisation for total war, acknowledging and then channelling multiple contradictions between private and public, life and art, romantic love and family.
Stylistically, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum claimed cinema’s status as art against the backdrop of its strong intermedial connections to the world of theatre. The long take has often been labelled as ‘theatrical’ in contrast to montage. And yet, the techniques Mizoguchi effectively used in conjunction with it, such as aperture shooting, manipulation of offscreen space, and precision blocking, capitalise on cinema’s specificity vis-à-vis theatre. For these techniques require the fixed point of view provided by the camera. This particular logic of medium specificity explains the reason that all the three kabuki scenes in The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum are heavily edited: they are performed not for the camera’s eye but for the diegetic audience.
1. Mikiro Kato, ‘Shisen no shuchu houka: Gubijinsô kara Zangiku monogatari e’, in Inuhiko Yomota (ed.), Eiga kantoku Mizoguchi Kenji, Tokyo, Shinyosha, 1999, pp. 144–9.
2. Engei gaho, November 1937, pp. 38–45.
3. Tsuneo Hazumi, Ju’ichiro Tomoda, Seiji Mizumachi et al., ‘Zangkiku monogatari gappyo’, Kinema junpo, 11 October 1939, p. 23.
4. Atsuko Kato, Sodoin taisei to eiga, Tokyo, Shinyosha, 2003, pp. 28–30.
5. Haruo Sato, ‘Kisewata: Zangiku monogatari o mite’, Nippon eiga, December 1939, pp. 20–2.
Cast & Crew:
[Country: Japan. Production Company: Shochiku’s Shimogamo (Kyoto) Studio. Executive Producer: Shintaro Shirai. Director: Kenji Mizoguchi. Based on a short story by Shofu Matsumura. Adaptation: Matsutaro Kawaguchi. Screenwriter: Yoshikata Yoda. Cinematographer: Shigeto Miki. Art Director: Hiroshi Mizutani. Music: Shiro Fukai. Cast: Shotaro Hanayagi (Kikunosuke Onoe), Kakuko Mori (Otoku), Kokichi Takada (Fukusuke ‘Fuku’ Nakamura), Gonjuro Kawarazaki (Kikugoro V), Yoko Umemura (his wife Sato).]
Rick Altman, The American Film Musical, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1987.
David Bordwell, ‘Mizoguchi and the Evolution of Film Language’, in Stephen Heath and Patricia Mellencamp (eds), Cinema and Language, Frederick, MD, University Publications of America, 1983, pp. 107–15.
David Bordwell, ‘A Cinema of Flourishes: Japanese Decorative Classicism of the Prewar Era’, in Arthur Nolletti, Jr., and David Desser (eds), Reframing Japanese Cinema, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1992, pp. 328–46.
Noël Burch, To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1979.
Darrell William Davis, Picturing Japaneseness: Monumental Style, National Identity, Japanese Film, New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.
Linda C. Ehrlich, ‘The Artist’s Desire: Eight Films of Mizoguchi Kenji’, PhD diss., University of Hawai’i, 1989.
Donald Kirihara, Patterns of Time: Mizoguchi and the 1930s, Madison, WI, University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.