Stand By Your Man(ifestly Mediocre Husband)

Film: The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums
Year: 1939
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

“If you’re praised when you’re young, you can’t become good,” says Kikunosuke’s uncle. Mostly out of familial goodwill, he has cast his nephew in the well-liked Osaka revue that he headlines, though the other cast members complain that the young man is no good—a “salted ham.” The uncle has put his finger right on it: Kiku has never seriously practiced his art, but has climbed high in the shadow of his adoptive father, sponging up the echoes of admiration meant for the older, more talented man. Long poised to succeed his popular pop and become the sixth in a line of exalted Kabuki actors, Kiku finds himself suddenly edged out by the birth of a natural son, and realizes that a lifetime of commendation to his face has been matched by derision behind his back. Otoku, the wet-nurse to his baby brother, is helpfully candid about his on-stage faults. They fall in love over watermelon. Because of her subservient position in the family, the relationship is forbidden and she is dismissed. Kiku runs away and, with Otoku at his side, joins a poor travelling theatre company, where he at last confronts and hones his skill—but comes to struggle violently between the ever-dismal reception of the audience and the undying support of his wife.

It occurs to no one that the issue with Kikunosuke’s acting may be that he is cast exclusively as women, about whom he knows nothing. Even today, I am told (the movie takes place in the 1800s), the tradition of men playing female roles endures in Japan’s Kabuki theatre, so perhaps this is beside Mizoguchi’s point. What the movie does intimate is that Kiku’s evolution as an actor stems wholly from the encouragement and faith of Otoku—in the practical sense that she constructively criticizes and, in times of self-doubt, compliments Kiku’s performing, and also verging delicately on the transcendental sense, as when she withdraws from Kiku’s make-or-break show to pray for his success in a secluded corner of the theater. The Last Chrysanthemums is a softly gripping illustration of the “behind every great man” adage, revising its ending to read, “stands a much greater woman.” It has a bone to pick with habitual perception, and stresses the power of breaking free from it: Kiku is oblivious to his own shortcomings as an actor because he has grown up with no sincere third-party insight, only the placating false praise of his father’s theatrical vassals. Otoku offers the first open criticism he has known, and it proves invaluable—until, as a touring stiff, he finds the tables turned, with contemptuous audiences unable to see beyond his status to his actual talent, and Otoku providing the sole affirmative response he can cling to. As before, he falls into the quicksand of the consensus, and comes to see himself as a hack and Otoku as one of the white-lying yeasayers who so long surrounded him. The movie appears at first to champion honest criticism over pliant approval, but becomes more a monument to the wielder of this honesty, the selfless soul who gives unwavering support to her partner as she feels she best can, and with every ounce she has to give, and in the end receives nothing from it save the pleasure of seeing him succeed.

Kenji Mizoguchi’s career was rabidly prolific, though it was cut short by leukemia in 1956 and today fewer than half of his works survive. Virtually all of the lost films were directed between 1923 and 1936, in which year he released Osaka Elegy, reportedly considered by the director to be his first “serious effort” although it was something like his fortieth overall. From here until his death, Mizoguchi would concern his films almost invariably with the tragic situations of women throughout Japanese history. Among the country’s filmmaking legends, he is the most associated with feminism (in contrast to Kurosawa, who admitted to not knowing how to write women). The typical Mizoguchi protagonist is a societally underfoot woman—often a sex worker, perhaps inspired by the director’s sister—who, simultaneously in spite of and in heartbreaking accordance with the sexist status quo, makes immeasurable sacrifices for a man she loves.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums is exemplary of this model, and unlike his better-known Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, I felt its weight immediately. Curiously, I think that’s because the filmmaking techniques with which Mizoguchi is synonymous are less refined here than in his masterpieces of the ‘50s. The mise-en-scene often appears sloppy at first sight, plagued by distractingly naturalistic lighting or by actors turned at haphazard angles from the camera and blocked in each other’s way. But, as scenes unfolded—usually in uninterrupted long takes, like held breaths—I was time and again subsumed by the overwhelming realism and inhabitability of the drama and the space. While Ugetsu and Sansho are comparatively so perfect that they could at times glide frictionlessly over me, the near-shoddiness of Last Chrysanthemums causes me to notice the techniques that are being employed—to notice the suspenseful prolongation of each shot, to notice the withholding dearth of close-ups—and, with this touch of awareness, to succumb to their intended effect. Sometimes a character will be about to say something important; they’ll pause, catch the words in their throat, hesitate, say something different; at the camera’s cruel distance, through its unblinking eye, these moments that could otherwise slip by become exquisite. And a relatively simple story fills two and a half hours, as a flower fills a reading room.

Furthermore, it becomes clear that the movie’s feminist angle is not just a matter of plot, but one of intonation. It is evident in the dynamics of Kiku and Otoku’s relationship, and in the way Shotaro Hanayagi and Kakuko Mori play these roles. I walked away from Last Chrysanthemums convinced that Mori was one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen in film, though Mizoguchi hardly ever shows us her face. She does all her acting with her voice and her neck. Inside her flustered protestations, we sense an articulateness and wisdom and passion that she feels she must suppress. Ostensibly it is Kiku, as the male, who drives their relationship, confessing his affection for her, proposing marriage, deciding where his career will take them. But it is Otoku who inspires these actions and effects every significant change in Kiku’s character. Likewise, though the story follows Kiku more closely and gives Hanayagi the starring role, it is Mori we remember as the heart of the film and the obvious hero.