by Jason Suzuki
Up their with Sansho the Bailiff and Ugetsu for being one of Mizoguchi's most highly regarded, and seen, works, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum earns its reputation and is finally being brought to the US on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. The story follows Kikunosuke, an adopted son of a famous kabuki actor, who while training to be his father's successor does not show any signs of improving. Otoku (Kakuko Mori) is living in the same household as the wet-nurse to Kikunosuke's infant brother, his father's natural son. Her special attention paid to Kikunosuke, or Kiku as he is called, where she gives him honest feedback and pushes him to become a better performer, get her fired. Their relationship gets both of them kicked out of the house and they must fend for themselves as Kiku attempts to make it on his own without his adopted father's name and without much talent.
Otoku falls into the priestess archetype, one that David Desser argues is Mizoguchi's preferred woman. The priestess is exemplified by a function to inspire men, usually at the women's expense, leading lives of long-suffering and eventual sacrifice. It is clear this is Otoku's destination on her path to inspire Kiku to kabuki greatness.
While damage is minimal the film, as well as the elements used for the restoration, show their age. The picture is consistently soft and given Mizoguchi's penchant for long shots the lack of depth is easily noticeable. As for the audio it is a lossless PCM mono track and just as with the video presentation it is less than stellar, most likely a result from the source prints used in the restoration. My Japanese is less than stellar but I found it difficult to make out any of the spoken words. Below are the restoration credits which indicate he Criterion disc is most likely the same as the Shochiku release.
Moving past the video and audio quality of the restoration, the biggest disappointment of the disc is the lack of supplemental material which is more in Criterion's control than the materials they received from Shochiku. We have an essay from Dudley Andrew who offers more insight on the theatrical aspects of the film and where it falls in the history of Japanese performing arts. And on the disc itself we have a lone video appreciation of the film by Phillip Lopate (21:19). Lopate clearly adores the film and it is to an extant where I could have sat for an hour listening to him talk about Mizoguchi and this film. He covers a great deal of topics regarding the film most interestingly the film's treatment of women and its depiction of their roles in society and how they are treated by society at large. It has been a topic most commonly linked to Mizoguchi and Lopate is one more to throw his hat into the discussion. But if we were to take effort/quantity of special features, the reputation of this film simply does not match. Sitting next to Criterion's treatment of Sansho the Bailiff their release of Story of the Last Chrysanthemum would look better sitting next to their release of Demme's Something Wild - another example of a technically not bare-bones disc that can be sold for full price.
Above all the film is what matters and in this case The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is excellent. It is a film that takes its time but never feels like it is dragging. It is the story of the link between the pursuit of greatness and the sacrifices that must come with it. That being said the lack of clarity of the picture and audio even with restoration efforts are noticeable for time to time. The film is the only thing must-see about this release but for the time being this might be the best option.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.