Criterion Crash Course: Moviemaking Lessons From Criterion’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum

Whether you’re a moviemaker, critic or devoted film collector, lovers of cinema can all agree: A Criterion Collection release is a stamp of cultural importance.

How can the arthouse distributor’s releases be used as tools to help independents hone their craft? Criterion Crash Course, our series focusing on new Criterion titles, considers every aspect of Blu-ray/DVD packages, from the film itself to its special features, as weapons in a moviemaking arsenal. Explore the moviemaking lessons from these packages—gifts that keep on giving.


The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939)

From Michael Haneke’s opening of Code Unknown to Cary Joji Fukunaga’s frantic, suspense-holding escape in True Detective, the well-executed long take is a trope many filmmakers salivate over, but rarely achieve. The troubles are innumerable: If just one player doesn’t possess the necessary chops, his or her errors will certainly come through. If the long take is not justified by the story being told, excessive showiness can take the viewer out of the picture. Enter virtuoso moviemaker Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1939 film The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum: a case study in rigorous attention to detail, finely tuned mise-en-scène and mastery of the long take.

The Criterion Collection’s new 4K restoration of this early masterpiece on Blu-ray contains a lengthy booklet essay and a video interview by film scholars Dudley Andrew and Phillip Lopate, respectively, which provide essential contextualization of the film’s social, historical, aesthetic and technical facets. (To wit: Two-thirds of the films from this prolific director are lost forever.) Beyond a study in Meiji era architecture and the subjugation of women in contemporary Japan, the film is ultimately a treasure trove of technique for burgeoning moviemakers to explore.

Lessons in the Long Take

In The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum Mizoguchi alternates between static long takes and others involving complex sweeping camera movements, and this rhythm between movement and stasis ensures that the viewer is always engaged. Sometimes Mizoguchi’s static camera, seemingly on its own volition, pans to the side at the last moment—sometimes to reveal a group of eavesdroppers in the adjacent room. While Akira Kurosawa’s bombastic, “what you see is what you get”-style of camera movements and framing often receive the most attention in film seminars, Mizoguchi’s approach, which at times crosscuts his kabuki theater scenes like a D.W. Griffith film, warrants an equal amount of study.

In fact, Mizoguchi openly challenges traditional filmmaking at every turn. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is void of any close-ups, which Mizoguchi felt broke the hypnotic spell of the long take. Wide lenses employed in conjunction with this lack of close-ups mean that the melodrama cannot be fully conveyed on the actors’ faces—as viewers are used to—but rather must be read through body language and the timbre of their voices.

Family wet-nurse Otoku (Kakuko Mori, right) is dismissed for her closeness to the young actor Kiku (Shôtarô Hanayagi) by his mother (left). Courtesy of The Criterion Collection

Special Features

In his 21-minute video interview, Lopate remarks that “Mizoguchi forces the spectator to be an active spectator” through moments where the director obscures characters through lattice, or has characters give emotionally charged speeches while facing away from the camera. Lopate’s formal breakdown of various sequences, as well as his discussion on the film’s usage of kabuki theater and its social commentary, serve an ongoing battle to correct under-appreciation of Mizoguchi’s work—a battle that at times seemed to be fought singlehandedly by The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, with one article having the almost comically blunt title, “Better Than Ozu and Kurosawa: Mizoguchi.” While Mizoguchi receives much admiration from film critics and filmmakers alike (Jean-Luc Godard, Martin Scorsese and Orson Welles are among his fans), the mainstream popularity his Japanese contemporaries have enjoyed has long eluded him. In recent years, a retrospective of his work by the Museum of Moving Image helped shine some much-needed spotlight, and Criterion’s release now continues this momentum to propel Mizoguchi into the conversations of cinematheque patrons and the televisions of film students and careerist indie moviemakers everywhere.

The Takeaway

Criterion’s edition of The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is excellent primer for moviemakers looking to move beyond the “fast and loose” American independent cinema model and make something more conscious of directorial intent and formal structure. As Andrew explains in his booklet essay, Mizoguchi is best understood as a “constructivist,” who maps out his narrative succinctly to subtly reinforce its power. Within this school of thought, find inspiration here to make a formalist film that densely overlaps plot, camera movement and scene composition. This method can amplify the power of melodrama on a subconscious level for viewers.

In addition to its formal qualities, the narrative in The Story of The Last Chrysanthemum deals directly with the toilsome road to becoming an artist—how all-consuming and laden with sacrifice it is for anyone who chooses to take it. Protagonist Kiku can be seen as a stand-in for Mizoguchi himself, whose obsessive tendencies and extreme attention to detail and story structure that went into crafting all of his epics put an intense burden on those around him. The film is an astonishing reminder of the far-spanning reach art can achieve when an artist is willing to make that sacrifice. MM

The Story of The Last Chrysanthemum was released by Criterion on Blu-ray and DVD September 13, 2016.

Next week’s Criterion Crash Course: A Blu-ray edition of one of the defining American directorial debuts, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Blood Simple—a widely influential neo-noir tale of madness and murder coming off its theatrical re-release.

Other titles in Criterion’s September line-up:

A newly-restored Blu-ray/DVD edition of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 10-part epic, Dekalog, a sprawling meditation on the human condition // Valley of the Dolls, Mark Robson’s adaptation of the pop cultural phenomenon novel of the same name, and its stakes-raising quasi-sequel, Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, each cult favorite visual feasts and now treated to their own new DVD and Blu-ray editions // the much-anticipated release of Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, a pivotal creature feature of horror cinema brought to fruition by titan producer Val Lewton // the first Blu-ray release of Carol Reed’s WWII espionage thriller, Night Train to Munich, and a Blu-ray-only collection of the 25-film adventures of Zatoichi, The Blind Swordsman.

Criterion Giveaway: Every week, we’re giving away a different Criterion title to one lucky winner. To enter the draw, all you have to do is subscribe to our newsletter! Full instructions here, and follow @moviemakermag on Facebook and Twitter for announcements on every week’s title.

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