Monday, November 19, 2012

Kenji Mizoguchi | Zangiku monogatari (The Story of the Last Chyrsanthemum)

a dream of the past
by Douglas Messerli

Matsutarō Kawaguchi and Yoshikata Yoda (screenplay, based on a novel by Shōfû Muramatsu), Kenji Mizoguchi (director) Zangiku monogatari (The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum) / 1939, USA 1979

In late 19th century Japan, the adopted son, Kikunosuke Onoe (Shôtarô Hanayagi), of the Kabuki master, Kikugoro Onoue (Gonjurō Kawarazaki) performs on-stage with his famous father. Kikunosuke is what some describe as a “ham,” a weak actor whom the large cast and backstage hands mock behind his back while only presenting smiles and praise to his face. Even his father, speaking to others of his son’s inability to act, calls him up from his downstairs dressing room to commend his acting. In short, no one,, it appears, will speak the truth to the future inheritor of the great Onoue name. The spoiled boy, accordingly, spends most of his nights out carousing until well after midnight instead of studying his art.

      On this night, however, he meets, just outside his house, the family nurse, carrying his father’s recently born son. The child is unable to sleep and the nurse, Otoku (Kakuko Mori) holds it to calm it down. Politely scolding Kikunosuke for coming home at such a late hour, she mentions that she has been to the theater with a friend to see his performance, and when he asks about his acting, she is honest. He must be more rigid and learn his art, she summarizes.

      Struck with her honesty, knowing himself that he is lacking, a relationship begins to develop between the two. A few days later, when his family is out of the house, he once again encounters Otoku, accepting her offer of a watermelon, cutting it up himself and serving it to her. At that very moment, the family returns, shocked to see him at table with a servant.

      Kikunosuke’s mother immediately fires the girl, despite Otoku’s protests that she has done nothing wrong. When Kikunosuke discovers that Otoku is gone, he goes in search for her, finding her days later and offering to marry her. Angered by his son’s now scandalous behavior, Kikugoro demands he leave the woman, the son responding by leaving his family and Tokyo, working for another Kabuki master, Tosiba, in Osaka.

      When the master dies, Kikunosuke and his wife have little money for food and board. When that company disbands, they have enough only to stay in an inn for a few nights. By coincidence Kikugoro Onoue and his company are performing in Osaka, and hearing of it, Otoku visits Kikunosuke’s father, pleading for his return to the family, which they accept if she will give him up. She agrees, but refuses to tell her husband the truth.

      In the years Kikunosuke has been performing alone, due to Otoku’s love and the suffering he has had to endure, he has become a great actor who now, in performance with his father once more, is recognized as a changed man. As the cast join to celebrate in a great river procession, a friend of the family comes to report that Otoku, staying with her sister, is near death. Kikugoro gives his son permission to visit his wife, and Kikunosuke rushes off.

      Hearing of her husband’s success and the father’s change of mind, Otoku tells him to return to the river procession, as she joyfully accepts his proclamation that he can now “be happy in both his profession and life.” The film ends with the river procession with Kikunosuke waving to the appreciative crowds, as we perceive that at the same moment Otoku has died.

      To most American viewers, this story can only be thought of as a kind of sentimental soap-opera, a tale of a young artist who, attempting to marry the wrong woman, loses his career only to rediscover himself, ending in a reunion with his family—the kind a work told over and over in American musical comedies such as There’s No Business Like Show Business. But Mizoguchi’s film is something much different: a work of dimension and subtlety that is difficult to explain.

     Part of the problem here, obviously, exists in the cultural differences. Our lack of understanding of Japanese societal distinctions, the Kabuki art, and the deification of the artist in general create gaps in comprehension. For Mizoguchi’s tale is not simply or even generally about a man who has fallen in love below his societal rank, but about a culture that in some senses allows no way out for anyone, neither the family nor the lovers. Mizoguchi’s story, moreover, is not as much narratively based as it is cinematically oriented. It is his way of showing this story that makes for such a transformative work of art.

       As critic Dave Kehr has commented, from the very first scenes of the film in the Kabuki theater we are shown the stratification of the patriarchal order of this world: “the small, neatly ordered rooms speak of a compartmentalized society, a place for everything and everything in its place. Graduating from the dank shadows of the offstage area, where the extras prepare, to the brightly lit and decorated dressing room of the star. Kikunosuke is literally called from the depths to confront his father when the performance is over.”

      Much of the work, as in Ozu’s films, is shot in a horizontal space, in which characters are set out in a seemingly non-hierarchical positions; yet their verbal expressions, many of which in the tape I saw remained translated and perhaps untranslatable, says it all.  The camera, usually placed at a far distance from the actors, does not judge, but the characters are very much evaluating and judging each other. These figures, moreover, are nearly all entrapped, locked away in a series of interlinking rooms, some leading to nowhere or small cabinets and closets, others to further entrapment. Even more importantly, the director generally impedes our vision, placing his actors behind bars and blinds, cutting them off from each other with doorways and windows. Much of the action—and the language being expressed—occurs just out of camera range. Up and down, inside and outside, behind and in front, Mizoguchi’s work suggests a world in which figures are already cut off from one another, positioned in a landscape that will not allow open communication, certainly not dissent. As Kikunosuke, late in the film, says to Otaku of his father: “I can’t show him my face.”

      As Kehr points out, only in scenes between Kikunosuke and Otaku do we sense a kind of equality, an openness that represents their unexpressed (on camera) passion. In particular, the scene in which they move laterally in an outside space when they first meet and the scene in which Kikunosuke cuts watermelon both reveal a world different from the Onoue home and theater. In both instances, Kikunosuke has accepted an offering from Otaku and openly shared it: in the first he has accepted her criticism of his acting, which utterly changes him as a human being; in the second, he accepts the fruit but, breaking with the tradition in which she would be expected to cut it up and serve it to him, he does just the opposite, playing the role of the woman as he will to his father later in the film on stage. Late in the movie, when Kikunosuke returns home, he observes the same action of a servant cutting a melon, staged in repetition of the first scene, which tells us everything we need to know. Here the action is a joyless task, while earlier it was all about the pleasure of giving, of sharing.

     Finally, in several scenes Mizoguchi’s camera literally tracks its characters down, racing along with the searching figures, between structures, through neighborhood structures, upstairs and downstairs. As opposed to the static relationships apparent in the house and theater, here we comprehend a desperate search for something outside tradition, an almost frenzied attempt to track down the other, to find what soon might be or has already been lost. As opposed to the predetermined gestures of Kabuki, the staid status quo of the Onoue household, or the theatrical bows of the river possession, with which the movie ends, these clearly represent the living force that Kikunosuke and Otaku have discovered in one another, something which the young artist must give up in order to survive in such dead space.

     The plot, accordingly, is one thing, but Mizoguchi’s camera shows us something deeper, more horrifying, even perverse: a “dream of the past” with no present, no future.

Los Angeles, November 18, 2012

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