Kenji Mizoguchi’s ‘The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum’ – sacrificing all for art on Criterion Channel

Kenji Mizoguchi, one of the masters of Japanese cinema, had already made 50 films by the time he made The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Japan, 1939), a  drama of art, love, and sacrifice that has been called his first genuine masterpiece and is considered by many critics his greatest film.

It’s the story of spoiled, arrogant actor Kikunosuke (Shôtarô Hanayagi), the adopted son of a great kabuki master, who believes the glib flattery of his father’s friends and jaded geishas until the family nursemaid, the modest, honest peasant Otoku (Kakuko Mori), confronts him with the truth of his hammy performances and his poor reputation and encourages him to improve. His family sends her away and he leaves the family troupe to make it on his own. Again she appears to offer encouragement, becoming his common-law wife but fully aware that once he proves himself and returns to Tokyo, she will have to leave him, a sacrifice she makes with eyes wide open.

Mizoguchi isn’t criticizing the social order that separates the classes, which modern audiences might assume, merely using it as the basis for a heartfelt tragedy. This is a film built on the belief that great art is worthy of such sacrifice while also recognizing that such sacrifice is as tragic as it is noble.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum a beautiful film. Mizoguchi directs in lovely long takes—the first scene between Kikunosuke and Otoku is a slow, gentle tracking shot down a silent street in the hours before dawn—and subdued performances that suggests the anxiety and emotion under the public show of manners.

In Japanese with English subtitles

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]

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The Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD releases feature an interview with film critic Philip Lopate.

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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