残菊物語 (The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums), 1939
Dir: Kenji Mizoguchi
People usually point to this as Mizoguchi's finest pre-War effort, but considering that this is only the second of his films that I've seen, I can't really say for sure. This is a slow-burner though, being one of the films that saw Mizoguchi's long-take aesthetic come to fruition, and in the end it's probably too long. At the end, there is a good amount of the Kabuki sequences that he could have cut down. Other than that though it is undeniably very good.
The beginning of the film was really strange and seemed stale with the strict style that Mizoguchi employs. I was sort of blown away by how the decent set up, of how a spoiled, adopted son of a famous actor finally realizes that he himself is no good and must make a name for himself on his own, wasn't interesting me at all. Once the initial confrontation happens, where Kikunosuke (Shôtarô Hanayagi) tells his father that he can't live in his shadow forever and is going to marry the family's nurse (Kakuko Mori), I started to get into it though. Once you've watched enough early Japanese (and Asian) cinema (I guess I've watched "just enough" but not nearly as much as I wish I have), you start to notice the gigantic culture clashes being shown on screen as the main crux of conflict; of how modernity is clashing with the strict cultures of proud people; "our" generation vs. old dudez. Kiku's decision to disrespect his father and his father's reputation is unforgivable and he is thrown out right away. Despite some pleas from other people to stay, it is too late. He must go out on his own.
Kiku finds himself sinking lower and lower in the acting world until he ends up part of a traveling troupe (this device is used a lot in cinema, huh?), where even there he still finds himself with a "bad actor" reputation. All he has is his wife, Otaku, who is a constant crutch, especially when Kiku starts to doubt if he can ever prove that he was right to leave and occaisionally tries to indulge himself with "nights out." Small hints of pride bubble up when Otaku goes to an old friend to ask for help and let Kiku preform in his new play, something Kiku was too ashamed to do. The sacrifice that Otaku partakes in here is reflected later as well, when after Kiku proves to everyone that he is a great actor, can only be reconciled with his father and the higher arts of Tokyo if he takes back the famous name, which cannot be connected to a house maid/nurse. So she leaves him for the sake of his "art," much to his agony.
The ending is melodramatic soup, but not strictly bad. Otaku is succumbing to tuberculosis during the moment of Kiku's artistic triumph, and only then is he given permission by his father to go and "be with his wife" on her death bed. It seems like a bit of a cop out concerning the whole generational clash (he seriously still needs "permission?" But I guess by accepting Otaku's decision to leave for his sake, he had already fallen back into his old way of life without her, which might be even more heartbreaking if you think about it), but in its presentation completely effective in how demoralizing her death will be to Kiku (and thus, you as a viewer). The film's bittersweet ending is reminiscent of the ending of Ugetsu (1953) though I wasn't at all conflicted there. Mizoguchi's style and mis-en-scene are already to the point here that allows for beautiful images and actions to be captured, and that alone, for me, makes his entire body of work, including this, work seeking out.