The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum ★★★★

My first Mizoguchi, and I picked a good one despite the frayed condition of seemingly every extant print. Its sensitively presented, tragic tale is of a Kabuki actor spurned by his family after he falls for his brother's wet nurse; we follow the couple as they try in vain to make ends meet in Osaka and then with a traveling company over the next four years. Mizoguchi's use of long takes, master shots as opposed to close-ups, and complex dollys -- one shot taking us inside to outside where a character is overhearing gossip about him is especially stunning -- give the film the feel of life happening before our eyes despite the melodramatic intensity of the story being told; every scene is absorbing and richly detailed, made all the more touching by the fine, understated performances of Shôtarô Hanayagi and Kôkichi Takada in the two leading roles. We can discuss whether the theme of a woman's immense sacrifices for the sake of her husband's career give the story a feminist or, as is often argued given the context of its time, a fascist underpinning... but it seems to me that our maddening frustration with the way events turn in the final act (without revealing to much, why was the final gesture on Kikugoro's part only offered when it was too late?) and the bitter pill of the devastating final shot demonstrate that we're meant to leave sobered, not energized, by the way one life has been laid down for another.

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