With some 60 films to his name a mere 16 years after starting in the film industry, Kenji Mizoguchi certainly had enough on-the-job training to get his act down. Nevertheless, 1939's The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums represents such a stylistic leap it almost seems less an evolution than a complete rebirth. It is not the master's first great work — in fact, I might even continue to argue for the powerful (and more defiantly upbeat) The Straits of Love and Hate, released two years earlier — but it is the true emergence of Mizoguchi the master, ironing out the style of immaculate compositions and increasingly sophisticated historical detail (courtesy of designer Hiroshi Mizutani, who had started working with Mizguchi on Straits) that would become his forte.
Admirers routinely (and correctly) note the nobility of Mizoguchi's female characters, but that implies placement on a pedestal that, despite their recurring Madonna/whore dynamics and martyrdom, these fully human characters do not reside upon. Not all of the women in The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums is a saint; many, in fact, are gossipy and territorial, geishas tugging at men as if quarreling over a kimono. But even these sweet-talking gaggles do not feel like mere props in Mizoguchi's world, instead perpetuating a clear but unforced social commentary on the insular nature of the occupational caste system that defines each person in his period pictures. The men of the film, Kabuki actors in late-1800s Japan, are also isolated by the social restrictions of their professions, forced to adhere to strict codes of conduct even when far nobler actions prove to be outside that set of manners.
Opening on a theatrical troupe preparing for a performance, Mizoguchi establishes Kikuosuke (stage actor Shotaro Hanayagi in his film debut), the lead of the production and the adoptive son of the troupe's resident master, a famed actor named Kikugoro. The performance clearly pleases the crowd, but Kiku's on-stage antics are exaggerated, and the rest of the troupe mocks him off-stage. To his face, of course, they are nothing but complimentary, something Kiku accepts even if he suspects the falsity of the praise everyone lavishes upon "young master." Only Otoku (Kakuko Mori), the wet nurse for Kiku's brother (and the belated biological son who prompts Kikugoro's disdain for the one he adopted), is honest with the man. She meekly advises Kiku "Don't let the flattery go to your head," and the ham, refreshed by her candor, soon falls for her. Naturally, this cannot be. Better for Kiku to squander money carousing with geishas than to fall in love with a servant of a different variety.
Mizoguchi's framing is so precisely and carefully composed that it borders on the avant-garde. Extremely long takes feature frequent camera movement, repositioning the frame into yet another painterly composition. He confines the action to one plane, generally the middle distance, and routinely he opens up the frame by way of a sliding wall, turning the middle plane into the foreground as the action suddenly moves backward into another room. Even the theatrical productions exist around Mizoguchi's camera: the show the first troupe puts on climaxes with a false embankment pushed back by foreground design and given more proximity by a backdrop that gives the setup a feeling of relative closeness. His refusal to use a close-up, even when the film moves into more melodramatic territory of female sacrifice, is telling. He prefers to let each composition soak in meaning rather than forcing the overused emotional shortcut of the close-up. His camera, frequently tilted just enough to move outside of eye-level, and he pivots the camera to arrange the mise-en-scène diagonally around the characters to create tension and uncertainty.
As the film progresses, Kiku, having renounced his family to live with the banished Otoku, moves further and further down the ladder with each failed performance. Through it all, Otoku continues to encourage him, even finding the silver lining in their suffering, saying it will improve his art. When Kiku's mother confronted Otoku about a potential relationship, she cut off the poor woman's defense of supporting and nurturing by saying "You're Kozo's wet nurse, not Kikuosuke's." That's exactly what she comes to resemble as the narrative continues, always the one to hold Kiku to her bosom and provide comfort. Compare her unwavering support to the slow dimming of the film's lighting by cinematographers Yozô Fuji and Minoru Miki: by the film's final act, in which a now much-practiced Kiku at last establishes himself as an actor and Otoku sacrifices their relationship to help her husband win back his father's graces, the lighting is full-on chiaroscuro. Even when Mizoguchi has the woman confirm to the expected gender roles, he makes inescapably clear through his compositions how disgusted he is by them and how devastating such norms are to those with true devotions.
The social critique here is more subsumed into the narrative than in his previous efforts, more fluidly integrated into his formal mastery. That flecks his theatrical touch with a more downbeat cynicism that stabilizes, even lightly chills his work. When Kiku finally gives his breakthrough performance, the one that will lead him back to the city and his family, Mizoguchi pulls back and frames Kiku's moment of triumph in extreme long shot, capturing the rapturous response of the audience but also dwarfing the man within the frame, proving how unworthy this moment was for the six years of isolation and hardship through which the actor put himself and his wife. But nothing compares to the sinister rhythm of the final shots, cross-cutting between Otoku dying of tuberculosis after being belatedly approved of by Kikugoro as her now-feted husband gloriously sails down a canal just outside the window she does not have the strength to get up and look out of. The juxtaposition of her wilting body, at last fully consumed to send her love into stardom, and Kiku officiously bowing and waving to adoring crowds that despised him until so recently, is one of Mizoguchi's most memorable endings, and terrible in impact.