REVIEW: 残菊物語 [Zangiku monogatari] [The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum] [1939]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 148 minutes | Release Date: October 10th, 1939 (Japan)
Studio: Shôchiku Eiga / Janus Films / The Criterion Collection
Director(s): Kenji Mizoguchi
Writer(s): Matsutarô Kawaguchi & Yoshikata Yoda / Shôfû Muramatsu (novel)

“Wait for me”

Writer/director Kenji Mizoguchi‘s Meiji period-set film about a struggling Kabuki actor and his devoted wife, 残菊物語 [Zangiku monogatari] [The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum], is a heartbreaking display of love’s power to endure no matter the external forces trying to extinguish it. For Kikunosuke Onoue (Shôtarô Hanayagi), the adoptive child of master actor Kikugorô Onoue V (Gonjurô Kawarazaki), fame and fortune meant nothing after experiencing true friendship and affection from his baby brother’s nurse Otoku (Kakuko Mori). She told him the truth about his failings on stage, pushing him to hone his craft and leave the sycophants quick to deride him behind his back. Her belief gave Kiku the confidence to keep going despite her love spelling exile from the only life he’d ever known.

The era marked a change for Japan as it began moving from a feudal society structure to the modern establishment we see today. This shift is metaphorically depicted with Kiku’s evolution from a middling ham praised for his adoptive name alone to a performer worthy of honoring that name’s storied legacy. In the old world, name was enough. He’d still receive the finest geishas after a performance and witness only smiles and applause when the curtain went down, but where was the incentive to earn it? Where was the tough love Kikugorô sought to provide that everyone around them shielded Kiku from? And with the Onoue patriarch now a father of his own genetic heir, how strong would the family’s bond remain if this eldest son couldn’t improve?

An ultimatum is delivered: keep the Onoue name bestowed upon him for a prolonged career in Tokyo or relinquish it to pave his own way elsewhere with Otoku—a servant, daughter of florists. There was no middle ground. But despite his friend Fukusuke (Kôkichi Takada) pleading for him to give her up and apologize to his father, Kiku chose the latter. He would travel to Osaka and prove his worth to return a conquering hero of Kabuki. As long as he had his love by his side he could do anything. Unbeknownst to him, however, was his father telling Otoku’s family they were forbidden to let her join him. A year goes by, his morale decreases, and their reunion marks the start of a slippery slope towards obscurity.

Adapted from Shôfû Muramatsu‘s novel by Matsutarô Kawaguchi and Yoshikata Yoda, it isn’t difficult to imagine one more opportunity for redemption providing itself. This is a pretty bleak tale of love not conquering all without one. But if it does arrive, how much pain will they have endured? What stipulations would ensure Kiku could come back to the life he had? Could he return to Tokyo with Otoku on his arm? If not, how much longer would she stand to be his in private without being able to let the world know who her husband was? It’s a devastating predicament they’re thrust into simply because reputation is held in greater regard than love. Luckily for Kiku, no matter how tough things get, Otoku’s compassion and faith never wavers.

At two and a half hours the film is long, especially considering the hardships depicted for the middle third. The opening act introducing Kiku and Otoku in this world that refuses their union is fantastic. We get extended sequences of Kabuki, gorgeously framed scenes with a deck railing blocking our view so the camera peers through the gaps at characters in conversation, and some magnificent long-takes moving room to room. These three aesthetic aspects continue throughout the film as the camera traverses elaborate sets like a multiple train car pan peering inside each at Kiku’s frenzied searching. The Kabuki only grows more complex as we watch from afar and in close, the performances on stage as important as the lives led behind. It’s a visual wonder.

The second act isn’t bad—it’s just so full of tragedy that it can become tiresome. From a failed attempt at notoriety to arduous years as a traveling actor, dispositions falter and the hope we once held evaporates for everyone but Otoku, of course. Fate intervenes when things become truly dire, but the question of whether it does so too late is unavoidable. Guardian Angels always have a tendency of disappearing after their jobs are complete and Otoku is nothing if not that for Kiku throughout. She is his greatest champion and most detailed critic. She is the light that guides him forward when he only knew depressing stagnation before. She ignites a fire that does dim at times, but never truly extinguishes. She doesn’t give up.

Act three comes with a new ultimatum, this time targeting Otoku. He chose her the first time and now it’s on her to choose him. The ramifications of this, however, are steeped in the traditions of the old world without thinking about just how much changed in the five years since the film’s beginning. This whole journey has seen Kiku and Otoku pretty much on an island of their own, tirelessly striving for more if only someone would give them the chance. The ending comes with enough time spent to potentially render those who were close-minded into a more appreciative mood. Any talent Kiku may have found was a result of his life with Otoku and that cannot be denied sight unseen. Love may finally align with success.

It’s a beautifully tragic tale ending on a bittersweet note that perfectly encapsulates the adventure. We see good times and bad, pride and hope. We admire Kiku’s devotion to Otoku considering who he was before and yearn to find someone we can love as much as she does him. It would be easy to dismiss Otoku as a pawn living to serve her husband, but this character is more complex than that. She never compromises who she is and stands her ground until he realizes the error of his way. She’s devoted to his happiness, but that only arrives within a life she craves to live alongside him. Their love is pure. It seeks acceptance removed from tradition, a modern love stripped of status between two free souls.

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