The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum
This heartrending masterpiece by Kenji Mizoguchi about the give-and-take between life and art marked the director’s first use of the hypnotic long takes and eloquent camera movements that would come to define his films. The adopted son of legendary kabuki actor Kikunosuke (Shotaro Hanayagi), who is striving to achieve stardom by mastering female roles, turns to his infant brother’s wet nurse (Kakuko Mori) for support and affection—and she soon gives up everything for her beloved’s creative glory. Featuring fascinating glimpses behind the scenes of kabuki theater in the late nineteenth century, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is a critique of the oppression of women and the sacrifices required of them, and the pinnacle of Mizoguchi’s early career.
Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum receives a brand new Blu-ray edition courtesy of the Criterion Collection, who present the film on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The new 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a new 4K restoration scanned from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and a 35mm duplicate negative.
It is very easy to see that a lot of work has gone into this restoration and the end result is very much film-like, rendering grain incredibly well and presenting smooth motion throughout. Unfortunately the source is very limited in a number of ways, and I don’t believe any level of restoration would improve upon these limitations. The biggest problem is how soft and fuzzy the image is. There is very little detail unfortunately and just about every object comes off hazy and undefined. I will point out that the screen grabs below actually make the issue look worse than it actually is as in motion, moving from frame to frame, more details do come through. Still, facial features in long shots are hard to make out, patterns are near impossible to see at times, and textures in the surroundings never register. Dark scenes can be a bit hard to see, with objects blending into the background thanks to weak black levels and a limited gray scale.
Damage is still visible as well. Fine scratches are present throughout most of the film, scratches on the right-hand side of the frame being the most obvious (the image is also more faded on the right-hand side). But despite the fine scratches, some tram lines, and mild pulses and fluctuations the image is still much cleaner than I would have expected. Bits of dirt and debris pop up here and there but they’re surprisingly infrequent and I’m guessing all of the work that went into this restoration focused primarily on the damage and marks picked up through the years. I’m also guessing that work went into removing stains, including those caused by mold. Stains don’t really pop up at all, though you can make out the faint remnants of them in a handful of places, which is what leads me to believe that work was put in to remove them, and despite the faint hint of them in places the work is impressive. There are frames missing in a few places (with a few very obvious ones in the train car near the end of the film) but I don’t recall any large splices or tears.
So yes, the image is very soft and the film—now 77 years old—shows its age. But you can still see a lot of work went into restoring this, and the damage is otherwise minimal. All things considered, I still think it looks pretty good. With a strong encode that thankfully doesn’t add any digital anomalies the image ultimately retains a filmic look. It may not be the most ideal presentation but I have no doubt this is about as good as we could expect without a better source.
The lossless PCM Japanese mono track unfortunately still shows its age and I suspect little could be done to improve it. The audio not only comes off flat and hollow but distortion is pretty heavy, the sound never sounding natural. Further hurting it is a consistent background crackle that never lets up. It’s a disappointment but I have to put it down to the condition of the materials. I of course had to use the subtitles since I don’t speak Japanese, but it wouldn’t be hard for me to imagine someone fluent in Japanese having a hard time understanding what is being said.
A bit surprisingly Criterion only presents one special feature: an interview with scholar Phillip Lopate. Calling the film one of the greatest ever made, he sets out—for 21-minutes—to explain why he feels this, concentrating typically on the camera work and the long takes, focusing on a handful of sequences, breaking them down and explaining the techniques employed to keep these single takes (which can last up to nine-minutes) interesting. He also talks about how the film presents Kabuki Theater and explains the social hierarchy represented in the film. He concedes that Otoku isn’t the typical Mizoguchi woman, admitting that some will find her a bit of a “wet blanket,” though offers his defense while also bringing up criticisms that have been made against the film.
Paired with Dudley Andrew’s essay in the included insert (going over the film’s play origins and the politics of the time the film was made, despite Mizoguchi not being overly political himself) it makes for a strong enough scholarly supplement but doesn’t make up for the lack of anything else.
The presentation is a bit of a letdown admittedly, though I think all that could be done was done and that this is the best we’ll get in terms of image and sound (at least for now). All things considered it still looks far better than it probably should and it’s evident that a lot of work still went into it. I still give Criterion credit for still releasing it on Blu-ray instead of dumping it in something like an Eclipse set. What hurts the release more, though, is the shortage in features and the higher price. Wait for a sale.