Tuesday, 6 February 2007

Tale of the Late Chrysanthemums (Japan, 1939, Kenji Mizoguchi)

“You know what they say, good father, bad son”.

Kikunosuke is the “bad son”; an aspiring actor whose father is Kikugoro, the most prestigious and acclaimed kabuki actor in Tokyo. Kikunosuke is his heir, but has none of his father’s talent, so relies on his father’s patronage. After each mediocre performance, he is showered with praise, but these are hollow gestures (even the likes of “everyone has been talking about you” takes on a different significance to us), as the rest of the troupe mercilessly savages his performances as soon as he departs (“Kikugoro is so brilliant, so what is wrong with his son?”). Only his younger brother’s nurse, Otoku, is honest with him, telling him that she knows the rest of the troupe criticise his performances behind his back, and that unjust praise will encourage complacency. Kikunosuke respects her frankness, explaining that “no-one ever tells me things like that”.

Their blossoming relationship meets widespread disapproval. When Kikunosuke tells his family he wishes to marry Otoku, he is told that this will ruin his future and bring shame upon the family name; such is that difference in social status. Rejecting his family name he leaves Tokyo with Otoku, who dedicates herself to improving his craft. Thus begins Otoku’s self-sacrifice; whilst he slowly makes slow progress as an actor, and becomes embittered and selfish, her health deteriorates and she becomes seriously ill. Knowing his father will not welcome him back with her in tow, she leaves him so that he can rejoin the troupe, justifying her decision with the claim that “art is no good without a family name”; it is important in order to succeed. Having delivered the first triumphant performance in his father’s troupe, Kikunosuke rushes to Otoku’s beside before she passes away. His family recognise it her influence that has made Kikunosuke the great actor he has become, and Otoku dies happy, knowing that he has achieved the aim she set out to assist with. Only at a river parade does his moment of self-realisation occur; only then does he finally comprehend the ultimate sacrifice Otoku made in the name of love.

Mizoguchi’s stunning melodrama explores the deprecatory role of women in Japan’s patriarchal society. Shot in his trademark style of long takes and a “one scene one shot” approach, Mizoguchi offers a savage critique of a society which oppresses women and turns them into victims. Few directors have championed women so warmly and consistently. Mizoguchi explores the class and social differences that permeate this society, and make Kikunosuke and Otoku’s relationship incompatible. Whilst his social equals are lacking in honesty and known to speak ill of others, a humble nurse shows him the kind of compassion, truth and understanding he needs. Even though is behaviour towards Otoku is often cruel, she never relents in her devotion. As Kikunosuke becomes the great and respected actor he always wanted to be, as Otoku dies, he recognises this as a hollow achievement; that he would not have come so far without her, and that he owes it all to her. Mizoguchi explores how high the price of fame is, and whether it is worth the sacrifices and losses made in order to achieve it.

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