Kenji Mizoguchi was at the height of his artistic powers with The Story of the Chrysanthemum (Zangiku Monogatari, 1939), which continues the progression of his visual expressiveness shown in Osaka Elegy (1936) and Sisters of the Gion (1936). The story, based on a novel by Shôfû Muramatsu, was again co-scripted by Yoshikata Yoda, who had begun his long-term collaboration with Mizoguchi with Osaka Elegy.
As with Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion, there is a focus of attention on the unsatisfactory condition and fate of women in Japanese society, although one might argue this time that the main character in Zangiku Monogatari is not a woman, but the male actor, Kikunosuke Onoue. Unlike the feisty and willful “Ayako” in Osaka Elegy and Omocho in Sisters of the Gion, who each questioned the traditional feminine roles, however, the principal female in Zangiku Monogatari, Otoku, is self-effacing and willing to sacrifice everything in loving devotion. But despite the ultimate tragedy of the story, which is a characteristic outcome of all of Mizoguchi’s films, Zangiku Monogatari is one of Mizoguchi’s most romantic and satisfying undertakings.
Mizoguchi’s films can be compared with those of Josef von Sternberg in terms of both narrative content and filmmaking technique. And Zangiku Monogatari is a particularly good example. It features sculpturally lit and carefully composed camera shots with a deep focus, often looking through environments in depth, where the principal figures are seen well behind partially obscuring foreground artefacts. There is also delicate camera tracking, dollying, and panning that follows the action of the scene without being obtrusive. In Zangiku Monogatari, Mizoguchi in fact demonstrates a mastery that even goes beyond von Sternberg, with many dramatic scenes lasing several minutes without a single editing cut. When you consider the bulky camera equipment and high demands for lighting that existed in those days, one’s admiration for the artistry of these effects is even greater.
The film opens in Tokyo in 1888 and traces the story of a Kabuki stage player over the ensuing six years. The narrative can be divided into five sections or acts.
- Kikunosuke Faces Criticism (22 minutes). The prominent Kabuki acting troupe led by the famous actor, Kikugoro Onoe V (a real historical figure) is shown in performance. The Kabuki productions are highly stylized and full of ritual gestures, but they were apparently highly popular with the public. Kikugoro Onoe V is so famous that his family is essentially upper-class. After the performance, Kikugoro expresses contempt for the inept performance in the play on the part of his stepson, Kikunosuke, who he fears will never learn to be a good actor. It soon becomes evident, however, that Kikunosuke is the heir apparent to Kikugoro’s position, by right of his family relationship, and he is guaranteed a successful career. As a consequence, Kikunosuke is a spoiled playboy who is indifferent to hard work and who is always shielded from harsh criticism by his family and friends. One day, however, Kikunosuke runs into the family wet nurse, Otoku (who is nursing his baby stepbrother) and happens to ask her what she really thinks of his acting, since he suspects that his acquaintances won’t tell him the truth. Despite her lowly position as a servant, she politely tells him that he could be much better if he tried, and she urges him to apply himself seriously to his craft. So Kikunosuke finally realises that he is an artistic failure who is only a big shot because of his father’s fame.
- Kikunosuke and Otoku (33 minutes). But the playboy Kikunosuke has finally met someone who is interested in him as a person, and not just for his family position. He gives up carousing with geishas in the evenings and starts staying at home in the evenings to talk to Otoku, but this leads to gossip. One evening his mother returns home and catches the two of them chatting, and the next day she summarily dismisses Otoku and banishes her from the house. Kikunosuke manages to find out where she has gone, and, in a dramatic scene, proposes marriage. But when he later faces his domineering stepfather, the very idea of marriage to Otoku is utterly rejected. Kikunosuke is reminded that, as an orphan, he is lucky to have been brought up in luxury and should not risk challenging his father. Besides, Otoku is of a lower station and is older than he is. After all, “face” is everything for people of their class, especially for performers who depend on the public’s acceptance. Faced with this rejection of Otoku, Kikunosuke refuses to bow to his father’s demands, and he stubbornly leaves home, despite the entreaties of his friend and fellow actor, Futusuke. But at the train station, where he had arranged to meet Otoku and travel to Osaka, he learns that she has been kept from joining him, so he departs alone.
- One Year Later (20 minutes). Kikunosuke is now a struggling and still inept actor in Osaka (over 500 kilometers from Tokyo). Expressing built-up despair, he decides to give up acting for good, but when he walks out onto the street, he is shocked to find Otoku, who has finally managed to find his whereabouts and has come to him. They immediately repair to Kikunosuke’s small quarters. Otoku says that she has only come to be his servant and help him succeed, but Kikunosuke assures her that she is now his wife. With renewed determination, Kikunosuke vows to continue his acting career; but when his acting troupe’s leader passes away, Kikunosuke is suddenly out of a job, and his only option now is to join an itinerant acting crew that plays before lower-class audiences in smaller towns.
- Four Years Later (34 minutes). Kikunosuke, still an itinerant actor and going nowhere, has degenerated to an aimless existence. Though Otoku remains loving and supportive, as always, he quarrels with her over pocket money. But after things get worse and they are out of work and money, they learn that that Futusuke’s acting company from Tokyo is playing in nearby Nagoya. Out of old friendship, Futusuke and his father give Kikunosuke a major role in their play, and there is an 8-minute sequence showing the Kabuki performance, with Kikunosuke in the starring role. He succeeds brilliantly, and the jubilant Kikunosuke and Otoku realise that they can now return to the big-time Tokyo Kabuki scene in triumph. Otoku tells Kikunosuke that she had always believed in him.
- The Final Parting (34 minutes). At the train station, Kikunosuke again looks for Otoku and is told by his friends she cannot accompany him back to Tokyo. His father will only take him back without Otoku, and Otoku has agreed that Kikunosuke should return alone. Reluctantly, Kikunosuke leaves without her and rejoins her family. Otoku returns to Osaka and lives alone in the old room that the two of them had shared. One year later, Kikunosuke and the Onoe acting troupe happen to visit Osaka, and there is another Kabuki performance presented at length. Afterwards, Kikunosuke is informed by an old friend that Otoku is in town and dying from consumption. Kikunosuke rushes to her bedside and swears that they can now live together – his father has finally relented and accepted their union. But it’s too late for them now. Otoku, selfless to the end, urges him to fulfil his obligation to his now-adoring public and accept their acclaim by participating in the ritual river barge procession. He does so, and we see him bowing to the cheering crowds on his river barge, while Otoku passes away back in their room.
There are some absolutely brilliant camera shots in Zangiku Monogatari that are worth repeated viewings. All of them feature elaborate camera and character movements that sustain the dramatic action in a fluid form of visual poetry. Here are some of them:
- In Act 1, there is a shot that lasts 4:40 showing Kikunosuke becoming fed up by the antics of two tipsy geishas who are quarrelling over his affections.
- Another particularly memorable scene in Act 1 is a long tracking shot when Kikunosuke first meets Otoku and asks her what she thinks of his acting. It is shot from a low angle, upwards towards the embankment on which they are walking back and forth, and it lasts 4:50.
- In Act 2, Kikunosuke is alone with Otoku and wants to get to know her better. He cuts some watermelon for her, while she busies herself preparing some refreshments. The shots lasts 5:20 and delicately shows their tentative and polite approaches. In the end, he tells her that he will try to be a good actor for her – she will be his inspiration.
- The dramatic encounter in Act 2 with Kikunosuke’s father during which he is told to give up Otoku lasts 5:30.
- In Act 4 there is a touching scene after Kikunosuke has abused Otoku and has struck her, taking some pocket money from her by force (she has been earning some money as a seamstress). She comes over to him and humbly apologises in an act of total submission. Trying to maintain his pride, Kikunosuke sullenly returns the money to her, admitting his wrong.
- In Act 5, after Kikunosuke has boarded the train back to Tokyo and has learned that Otoku won’t be coming back with him, there is a dramatic 4:00 scene in the railway car. Kikunosuke movingly tells Futusuke and his companions how empty his life would be without Otoku.
- The final long shot between Kikunosuke and Otoku at her bedside lasts 6:15. In it they express their happiness at his success. They are both in tears, but perhaps for different reasons. Kikunosuke is worried about Otoku’s health, while Otoku expresses the sorrow of the last chrysanthemum.