A melodrama that refuses the melodramatic, a romance that discards the romantic, but a tragedy that wholeheartedly embraces the tragic – The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (1939) marks an early crystallisation of the tendencies that have come to epitomise Kenji Mizoguchi’s immeasurable contributions to film art. Scaling a summit of stylistic delicacy that he himself wouldn’t reach again for over a decade after its release, the director furnishes an archetypal tale of forbidden love with the intimacies and intricacies of detail, thereby negating the predictability of preordained heartbreak. His ill-fated lovers are cut from a familiar mould: Kiku, affluent (but talentless) heir to a popular theatrical dynasty, falls for Otoku, his baby brother’s wet nurse, after the latter breaks a wall of silence that shields the former from his professional inadequacies. A now standard Mizoguchian journey follows; a pathetic, poignant prolapse into poverty and perpetual misfortune that will eventually sever the coupling and leave each party stranded beyond the point of reconciliation. Throughout this plight, the director will launch deceptively indignant critiques against the codes and conventions of a society that so blindly sanctions such hardship, whilst casting a particularly sceptical eye on the rigidity of outmoded gender roles.
With his cinematic vocabulary at its most complex, Mizoguchi restrains his story’s dramatic tumults whilst nourishing areas of thematic agency that would otherwise remain concealed by the exuberant bathos of his narrative. Chrysanthemums consequently finds its emphasis shifted to length: both in terms of the duration and the framing of its shots. Aided by the director’s seamless dollying and unobtrusive pans, the film’s remarkable fluidity creates unbroken streams of passion that threaten to overwhelm with their raw power. Yet Mizoguchi is careful to maximise the potential of his newly-elongated dramaturgy, and so he studiously upholds the text’s aloofness: a respectful distance is maintained between the viewer and the intense, piercing sentiments of our woebegone heroes – and within the expanse of visual and figurative space that subsequently emerges, the director constructs his own running commentary upon on-screen action. The vicissitudes of Chrysanthemums‘ subtexts are thus explored with remarkable dexterity; the nuances within Mizoguchi’s technical mastery illuminating his lovers’ travails whilst simultaneously consecrating their interiority. Consider one of the director’s most impressive sequences, in which Kiku and Otoku encounter one another for the first time (at least in the filmic world): Mizoguchi documents this pivotal moment with an uninterrupted, five-minute tracking shot that gracefully glides alongside the duo during their impromptu moonlight stroll. He outright refuses to fracture the lucidity of this scene – hence, he avoids cuts and records in long shot, whilst masterfully using blocking to express what cannot be registered in close-up; the ongoing saga of who walks before whom (and in what proximity) substituting for a courting ritual, not to mention a wry critique of the power dynamics within the blossoming relationship. Otoku, despite the wounds that she inflicts upon Kiku’s masculinity, will eventually recede to a position firmly within the latter’s shadow – a position in which she’ll stay (not necessarily against her will) for the remainder of the film.
This exquisite, extended take is also a key exemplar of a decision that’s to become the central component in Chrysanthemums‘ stylistic framework: the adoption of what can only be described as the societal gaze. Mizoguchi’s camera here comes into its own as an independent analyst, assuming an active yet objective perspective that definitively reshapes his emotionally-florid scenarios whilst imparting reams of information that elucidate the internal workings of their environment. Thus, as the lovers take their midnight walk, the director makes a simple choice – to film them from a low angle – and, in doing so, immediately reinforces their social status (particularly in Kuki’s case), according these protagonists a modicum of respect that will swiftly dissipate in later scenes as their misfortunes escalate; this adversity reflected in Mizoguchi’s switch to high angle shots as they slide further and further down the socio-economic hierarchy. The chasm that the director enforces between character and audience now possesses an ulterior motive: to doggedly marginalise the heroes’ love story, thereby replicating society’s own condemnation of their inter-class affair. We peer at them from behind doorways (often with their backs to us), or in compositions that obfuscate their presence by foregrounding inanimate objects. Most stunning of all are the dynamic flights of fancy embarked upon by Mizoguchi’s camera, which effortlessly traverses through walls and even entire buildings in order to stay attuned to its subjects – the gesture augmenting the sheer artificiality of their man-made barriers; the Mizoguchian conception of “civilisation” thus exposing itself as yet another synonym for repression.
Transcending one’s social limitations is an aspiration that informs the very foundation of the director’s oeuvre, so when his camera soars his characters’ dreams soar alongside it. But these lovers’ torrid yearnings are undone by the constraints of Chrysanthemums‘ universe – the pressures of which Mizoguchi scrupulously articulates, even outside the successful implementation of his societal gaze. Note that the film’s narrative is divided into segments which observe Kiku and Otoku’s odyssey through criticial junctures over a five-year period. Each of these stages opens with a depiction of life inside the theatre to which Kiku happens to belong at that point, and a number of the director’s most inventive flourishes are to be found in centrepieces that recreate the art of Kabuki performance. Kiku’s inescapable theatrical background doesn’t simply allow the director to flaunt his stylistic flair though, it reinforces the film’s key theme by underscoring the idea of role-playing. Kiku’s familial tribulations exist because he refuses to conform to his father’s wishes as a man and fails to perform to his father’s expectations as an actor, thus leaving him no choice but to reject the patriarchal inheritance endowed to him – and along with it, the power of social status and the adulation of fickle audiences. Otoku’s dismissal by her employer is not unrelatedly brought about because she’s erroneously viewed as too “ambitious”, therefore breaking the code of conduct that’s silently imposed upon women of such lowly ilk. (Naturally, social mobility is discouraged at all costs by the ruling classes.) Mizoguchi is careful to forge a link between performance and predestination and, once established, he adroitly applies it to the romance itself. Neither protagonist here is particularly likeable: Kiku is a selfish narcissist almost through to the final scene, whilst the lachrymose Otoku’s predilection for total abnegation is as frightening as it is offputting. The film’s dramatic framework is recoloured accordingly – relentless in his impulsion of these archetypes, the director’s characterisations beg the question: where does this sorry tragedy lie? Is it a tale of forbidden love quashed by a ruthless society of oppressors, or is it a saga of two losers cruelly thrown together and making the best of a miserable situation? Mizoguchi’s bitter coda wisely elects to preserve the ambivalence, but it nonetheless reveals more than we could possibly wish to know about the world that he enshrines: no matter how fast we run, the roles that we were born to play will always catch up with us in the end.