Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Flower Petals

Film: Zangiku Monogatari (The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums/The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum)
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on rockin’ flatscreen.

I feel out of place when a film is deep in a tradition with which I am not particularly familiar. Such is the case with Zangiku Monogatari (The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums, sometimes called The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum). This is a film that is at least part rooted in Kabuki, and I don’t have a great deal of familiarity with Kabuki. I mean, I sort of know what it is, but I’m hardly an expert. It’s sort of like watching a game of cricket. I think I can appreciate parts of it, but I don’t really know what’s going on a lot of the time, and I’m not sure I can fully understand what makes something good or bad.

Regardless, Kabuki is more the backdrop of this film than it is the focus, and it’s the backdrop because our characters are stage actors. It’s a simple story of family, love, and redemption. A young man named Kikunosuke Onoue (Shotaro Hanayagi) acts in his adoptive father’s troupe. Because his father is a widely respected actor, Kikunosuke is praised to his face, but is constantly derided behind his back because he isn’t very good. The only person who really encourages him to improve at his craft is Otoku (Kakuko Mori), the wet nurse of his father’s infant son.

The problem here is that this sort of encouragement is frowned on. Not because Onoue shouldn’t be encouraged, but because doing so is far above the station of a simple wet nurse. For her effrontery, Otoku is dismissed by that father’s wife (and since we don’t get a lot of names here, I’m not 100% sure who the actress is, but I’ll guess Yoko Umemura). Kikunosuke is quite attracted to her, though, and he seeks after Otoku, finds her, and runs away with her to learn the skill of being a true actor far away from his father’s shadow. Both his adoptive son’s rebellion and the potential for scandal enrages the father, Kikugoro (Fukusuke Nakamura).

As time passes, we see the struggles of Kikunosuke and Otoku, who are become common law spouses. Kikunosuke improves in his craft, and through hard work is eventually given a chance to join a prestigious troupe in Tokyo, and to possibly reconcile with Kikugoro. This causes Otoku into a terrible decision, on that will affect her and her husband for the rest of their lives.

This is a film that frankly could be great, but has a few things standing in the way of it. The first and in many ways most salient is that the film is badly in need of a restoration. There are sound pops throughout the film as well as sections with an ambient buzz, particularly when scenes change, and the condition of the print is terrible. I’ve seen high-quality films on Hulu before, so I’m pretty sure that it’s not the fault of the service, but a function of the age of the film. Because of this age, the corners of the film are dimmed, giving the impression of watching the film through a telescope at times. It’s a shame, because there are times when it’s almost impossible to separate the film from the condition it is in. Criterion needs to get on this, especially considering how respected this film is.

The other problem, or at least the issue that I experienced watching this film is entirely on the film’s shoulders. It’s slow, and not just in places. A great deal of the film moves forward in long dialogue scenes that inch the plot forward. This story could probably be told in 90 minutes, but Zangiku Monogatari stretches out to nearly an hour longer than that. Mizoguchi likes to plant his camera and let the scene take place in front of us, which does lend a certain theatrical aspect to the film. It’s also a technique liberally borrowed in later years by Yasujiro Ozu. While it’s interesting to see, it slows down the plot.

This stylistic choice makes parts of this film an ordeal. Segments of the film that could be easily handled in ten minutes—Otoku’s dismissal and Kikunosuke’s decision to run off with her—take instead half an hour to slog through. That film feels too fat.

However, with a restored print, I’d be willing to give it another chance. Until that time, though, the actual viewing of the film is punishing in places because of the condition of the available print. Until then, Zangiku Monogatari will be an interesting idea for a film and a bittersweet, if overlong way to tell it.

Why to watch Zangiku Monogatari: There’s a great film buried in here somewhere.
Why not to watch: Until it’s restored, it’s a difficult film to watch.


  1. Nice review. I generally agree. It is difficult to bridge the cultural divide at times but there is also real quality here. The version I found is in excellent condition and if you are interested I can send you a reference. It is part of a box set of the directors other stuff.

    1. It's good to know there's a better version out there. I wonder why Hulu doesn't have it.

  2. I'm a really big fan of Japanese cinema. My favorite filmmaker of all is Akira Kurosawa. He seems (to me) to make one classic after another, and I say this having seen all but two or three of the films he made after 1945.

    I like Ozu almost as much, but I started watching his films a lot later. so I haven't seen nearly as many of his films. My favorite Ozu film is Good Morning, and the other Ozu films I've seen (nine or ten) are all in a tie for second place. By the time I've seen more of Ozu's output, he may well displace Kurosawa.

    And then there's Godzilla and other big monsters, Studio Ghibli, films like Harakiri, Gates of Hell, Castel of Sand, Audition, Onibab and whatever.

    Which brings us to Kenji Mizoguchi, another of the classic filmmakers of Japan. I have a mixed view of his films. I really liked Life of O-Haru a lot and I find the 1941 version of 47 Ronin to be quite a wonderful film. I consider it Japan's Gone with the Wind. (I mentioned this to one of my friends and she said "Is it long and dull and racist?" which made me laugh).

    But sometimes, I watch a Mizoguchi film and I wonder what the fuss is all about. Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff come to mind.

    I'm happy to say that The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is one that I got. I can see why it's considered a classic of old Japanese cinema. I'm a bit of a sucker for Japanese movies that contain little bits of Kabuki performances, and this one certainly delivered on that front! But there's so much more here. Otoku's devotion and sacrifice were touching, and the scenes of the lives of the actors were all very interesting and compelling. And the rain the rain the rain! It always rains so much in Japanese films. Almost as much as in moody films set in Los Angeles.

    1. See, I feel the opposite--I'm much more attuned to Ugetsu and Sansho than to this one. I'd be willing to give this another shot, but it would have to be a better print.