Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums

The plot of Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), that's currently being revived at Lincoln Center’s Bunin Theater, may seem totally melodramatic.  Kikunosuke Onoue (Shotaro Hanayagi), the son of a famous Kabuki actor, is forbidden to marry beneath his station because in the world of traditional Japanese theater (and culture) “pedigree means everything.” So Kiku chooses art over life and splits with his loyal wife  Otoku (Kakuto Mori), the one time nursemaid of his baby brother, who had become his lover and muse (“what I offer him is something like being a nursemaid to his art,” she explains just before she is dismissed from her job). In less estheticized circumstances isn’t this what happens all the time when people choose work and career over family? However, the palette Mizoguchi is working from is far more complicated. Kiku is an adopted child whose pedigree has already been tested and whose initial theatrical outings have been failures. He's surrounded by courtiers-- courtesans and fellow actors-- whose universe is a mixture of false praise and saving face. This world of appearances is, of course, what acting is all about and Chrysanthemums is a film about theater. Yet if it's concerned with the ability to play a role, it’s also about  the difference between role playing and sincerity. At one point later in the movie Kiku’s father, Kikugoro Onoue (Gonjuro Kawarazaki) says “being a good actor is not just about talent” as he reverses himself and tells his son “to go to your wife.” Almost all the scenes are framed in mini prosceniums as if to emphasize the presence of actors and audience, those who are participating and those who are part of the literal or figurative audience. The movie is in some way an essay in framing in which Mizoguchi's shots become paintings, really tableaux vivants, each telling the story in microcosm. Some of these are priceless like one before the end in which Otuku remains under the stage mired ropes, the symbolic noose which is slowly tightening around her. But this isn’t the only lens through which we view the fate of his characters. In the beginning Otoku and Kiku partake of the kind of romantic love that’s intensified because it’s forbidden and transgressive; in the end it’s naked ambition that drives Kiku.  And when he says “We can be happy in art and life," pleading with his dying wife to “wait for me” as he proceeds to seek out the applause of the crowd, you're plainly not intended believe a word of it.

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