The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Kenji Mizoguchi / Japan, 1939):
(Zangiku Monogatari)

Ozuís Kabuki actors (A Story of Floating Weeds) are saltimbanques lugging private dramas from town to town, Kenji Mizoguchiís are bluebloods whose rigid company mirrors the regimentation of a land not quite out of the old century. Topping the dynasty is the mighty theatrical lion (Gonjuro Kawarazaki), expected to carry his name is the adopted son (Shotaro Hanayagi) with miniscule gifts, a bad actor "born defeated" and surrounded by flattery. The cocoon is pricked by the family housemaid (Kakuko Mori), a low-angled lateral tracking shot of the couple walking at night traces the effect honesty has on the proud clod (cf. Fordís tracking shot with Abe and Ann Rutledge along the fence in Young Mr. Lincoln). Out of Tokyo and onto the road, years of struggle and discovery. "An actor must be adored by the public." "Iím tired of adoration!" Arduous work by itself does not an artist make, the craft cries for a spark of risky emotion, the thespianís realization is the extinguishing of the muse. All of this is analyzed via a highly developed style, distanced yet dolorously emotive: Superbly complex interiors in auditoriums and trains linked by stately movement, a view of the lovers at the flophouse held for minutes on end at an elevated angle (Wyler has it in Carrie in the midst of Olivierís debasement), a dialogue staged as a tight tableau until a small swivel of the camera reveals the rest of the world. The pit and the pendulum of success, the sound of applause as a loved one's death rattle, a most trenchant showbiz perspective. The celebrated actor bows painfully to the camera at the close, but the magnificent moment of irony comes earlier: Powdered, bewigged and crammed into an oversized kimono, the protagonist wields a bogus blade before a rapt audience, and the sharpest of cuts gives way to the heroine alone backstage, crouching in the dark, Mizoguchiís true warrior. Cinematography by Minoru Miki. With Kokichi Takada, Tokusaburo Arashi, Yoko Umemura, and Nobuko Fushimi. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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