If there are two types of stories that tend to be full of big emotion and drama, it’s the coming-of-age tale and the backstage tell-all. Put the two together--adolescent angst and performer’s ego--and all bets are off.
Unless, of course, you’re watching Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1939 film The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum. Though the script is full of melodramatic situations, including a Shakespearean split between father and son and a woman who sacrifices her health to see her husband achieve his greatest dream, Mizoguchi is determined to present it without histrionics, adopting a film style that is more observant than intimate, mimicking the experience of seeing the kabuki plays his characters perform in, shooting the entire story as if sitting in the middle seat inside the theater. No close-ups, no shouting, but heartbreaking all the same.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum follows Kikunosuke (Shotaro Hanayagi), the adopted son of one of the greatest kabuki performers of their age (played by Gonjuro Kawarazaki). Young Kiku is not a very good actor, and he finds himself torn between false flattery and bitter sniping. When the family’s nanny, Otoku (Kakuko Mori), tells him the truth, the unselfishness of her feeling for him makes Kiku take notice. He becomes determined to improve his art and make his own name in the world. Such a declaration makes him look insubordinate, however, and when the family forbids his romance with Otoku, Kiku has had enough. He leaves to strut the boards in another town.
Otoku eventually joins him and they marry, but good fortune is not yet theirs. Kiku is still mediocre, and when his protective mentor dies, he is forced to trade his position at the theater for a spot in a traveling show--a much less respectable gig, but a gig nonetheless. It provides Kiku with the right experience, but little notice and little money. It will take an act of fate to reverse Kiku’s trajectory--fate engineered by Otoku, even though it may be too late for her to enjoy it.
The idea of needing to suffer for one’s art is not novel to Mizoguchi, but he certainly makes it seem the least romantic. Kiku isn’t a brooding Byron engineering his own disasters; rather, he is earnest and well meaning, and he doesn’t actually see that the misery he is enduring is informing his art. In fact, this may be exactly why he’s not so great on the stage: his inability to delve into his emotional life. The drive to be better is his only focus, and it only allows for selfishness, not self-reflection. Kiku’s perception is based on the public and critical reactions to each night’s play; luckily, he also has Otoku there to keep him motivated. She redirects his energies as necessary.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is equal parts A Story of Floating Weeds and Sawdust & Tinsel [review]. It is about family as much as theatre life, with the family of performers forming a secondary clan. In a way, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is unique in how the family rallies around the lesser amongst them, pooling their efforts to fix Kiku’s life. No man is left behind, as it were. Only in the final act does Kiku become the star of his own story. We finally see him on stage--something that Mizoguchi has mostly kept from us so far, perhaps assuming Kiku might lose our sympathy were we to see how bad he really was--showing us his comeback night, when he proves to his father’s contemporaries that he’s worthy of returning to Tokyo. For the first time, Mizoguchi really takes us onto the stage, and we get to see the man at work.
Mizoguchi fans will be drawn to The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum for Otoku as much as they are Kiku’s fall and ascendance. Perhaps moreso. Her devotion and sacrifice illustrates one of the central themes of his work, as also shown in the films in the Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women boxed set [review], where they get to take center stage themselves. As Otoku, Kakuko Mori gives an appropriately quiet, often unassuming, but deeply felt performance. How much of the others’ willingness to try to elevate her husband is based on their sympathy for her more than their liking of Kiku? Probably most of it.