#131. Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939)

Story of the Last Chrysanthemums isn’t as hard to get through as I thought it would be. Characters’ motive are clear and the problems they face are fairly universal, the premise and action are both clear. But after my first viewing (which took two sittings and inspired a weird a fatigue) I thought I understood what had happened, could have described the action pretty thoroughly, but I wasn’t sure I understood. In fact I was almost certain that crucial information had gone over my head.

So, for the first time since writing about the silent era, I went to Wikipedia  to read the plot summary and, in so doing, confirmed that I’d pretty much caught he story. But I still felt unsure. So I consulted TCM’s website for their notes, and tehn read a verbose essay on the Criterion website, and when it was clear that simply reading about the movie wasn’t gonna bolster my confidence, or make me feel like I understood it any better, I took my laptop to a local dive at lunchtime and watched the whole movie again.

I think this is just because it’s Japanese and because Japanese society looks so different from American. Take for example a scene, early on, where two geishas vie for the attention of our young actor/hero. It’s a pretty straightforward scene. This kinda conversation’s taken place on TV and film in the U.S. a dozen times. But because it’s being conducted in a room that’s totally unfurnished except for a mat, a room where the doors are made of wood and paper, and the people are all on their knees and dressed in robes and speaking a different language, something in my brain reflexively tells me that I’m missing something here. That there must be something more complicated and nuanced than an argument between characters. And maybe that totally is the case. It’s 100% possible that there are social or racial or gender implications to the dialogue that are flying way over my head on account of it’s not only taking place among people of another culture – it’s reflecting the cultural norms of, like, 100 years ago. Not only that. It’s a period piece that appears to be set in the 1800s, but it was filmed in the 1940s. So it’s a 70-year-old movie from a foreign culture that’s meant to showcase the social mores of that same culture from like fifty years before.

So there’s…there’s layers.

But most likely there’s a surface narrative that we can all understand. This is a scene where two women argue over a guy who doesn’t deserve either one of them. You don’t need to be a 19th century Japanese thespian to understand those dynamics.

The movie is about Kikunosuke Onoe (Shotaro Hanayagi), the adopted son of a great Kabuki actor. Young Kikunosuke, called Kiko, aspires toward greatness on the stage and keeps getting roles on the strength of his father’s reputation. But he also appears to be almost wholly without talent. He (seems to) fall in love with Otoku (Kakuko Mori), the wet nurse of his baby brother and the only person who’s honest with him about his awful performances. They end up married and she spends the remainder of her life lifting him up after a long series of failures until, on her death bed, she sees him succeed.

Much of the reading you can do about Story of the Last Chrysanthemum will highlight the feminist angle, exploring the nuance of Mori’s performance as a woman whose purpose is to prop up a weak man. She shows tremendous strength and heart in doing so but, in exchange for her efforts, the spotlight is cast on somebody else – a man takes credit – while she steps aside and quietly dies. I regret that I didn’t catch much of that the first time through (it’s apparent everywhere on the second viewing, once the idea was introduced to me through the Criterion website’s critical essay). Instead I was struck mostly by a feeling of empathy for Kiku and his journey toward success, toward his father’s approval.

But the fact that the feminist angle slipped totally by me in the first viewing does kinda vindicate that feeling like the movie goes over my head. But I suppose there’s also the chance that I, as a western viewer, am responsible for that. Like I’m psyching myself out by telling myself that a million things are going over my head. As a result, I look too closely at little shit, and miss the big picture.

In a broader sense, though, I do have a serious feeling of kinship with Kiku’s perpetual failure. I’m right there with him in the sense that he’s trying, simultaneously, to cultivate his talents and have them recognize while I, with writing fiction, am kinda doing the same thing, trying and failing to get Horny Nuns published. Rejections on rejections on rejections. And then there’s dread like maybe you’re completely fucking it all up but just don’t have anybody in your life who’s willing to tell you the truth about your talentlessness. Or let’s say you do have that person, and their candor is underscored by a wish for you to succeed – there’s almost always this question of how far you should push yourself, how often you should submit your genitals for the industry gatekeepers to stomp on.

It’s flustering and discouraging but ultimately you do (if you’re really passionate) just surrender to the fact that the craft is who you are and you’re gonna keep on doing it simply because it’s the thing that you do. I guess that’s the space most artists operate out of before hitting success.

Ahdunno. But Kiku’s repeated failure and perpetual effort to better himself, though relatable in the abstract, was hard to see in the movie because, Kabuki theater employing different acting styles than a Western audience might be accustomed to, I thought that every stage performance showcased in the film was kind of histrionic. Also, when pantomime is infolved, I felt a perpetual disconnect from what was being successfully or inadequately conveyed. I felt something similar while watching the silent Indian film A Roll of Dice a couple years ago. I’m wondering how many movies from a certain foreign culture I’ll have to watch before I feel like I can move around comfortably, knowingly, within the space they create.

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