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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Divine Offering
by Donald Levit

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum/Zangiku monogatari (literally, “Brutal Story”) goes by several slightly varied English titles, was the only work done under 1939 war censorship by otherwise vastly prolific Kenji Mizoguchi, and is less widely recognized and screened than his postwar The Life of Oharu and Getsu monogatari/Ugetsu. Thus, in a digital restored version from a 4K transfer by Shokiku Studios (which owned Shinko Kinema, for whom the film was originally made), the one-forty-three minutes “premièred” at this year’s Cannes Festival and now finds its first New York release as a Christmas Day gift at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Mizoguchi is commonly styled a feminist because of his trademark sympathetic consideration and understanding of women exploited in a rigidly structured traditional society. The late Andrew Sarris had it that “No director in the history of cinema has so completely identified with the point of view of the woman, [whose] rights are merely a logical extension of the rights of man.” But the director is actually non-committal, and moderns may in the end be exasperated with Chrysanthemum’s suffering and sacrificing patient Griselda, Otoku (Kakuko Mori). The medium-range camera never moves in close, and thus it distances any viewpoint pro or con. Pressured by inflexible class and economics -- the elder sister with whom the director lived had been sold from dire poverty into geisha training -- the heroine endures privation, humiliation, even abuse from the man she loves and serves, all for his happiness only.

From a popular novel in turn out of ancient legend and already stage dramatized, this also ranks high among cinema considerations of actors and acting though less known in the West because the boards are those of the (post-1629) all-male Kabuki melodrama.

In the world’s already most populous city, Meiji Tokyo, Kikunosuke “Kiku” Onoe (Shotaro Hanayagi) is Young Master, adopted son of “Goro the 5th,” Kabuki megastar Kikugoro Onoe (Gonjuro Kawarazaki). Fellow actors, the public and ladies of the pleasure district Floating Willow World fawn all over him while behind his back belittling his nepotistic position and lack of thespian talent. Only Otoku, the wet nurse for his newborn adoptive brother Kozo, is honest enough to confront him with the unpleasant truth although sweetening the pill with encouragement to practice and improve.

In the unforgiving class- and code-bound nation only recently touched by the outside and symbolized by the perfect sixteen-petal chrysanthemum, the guileless young woman wins the insecure actor’s ear, his admiration, and, over watermelon, his heart. Although their relationship is chaste, his horrified parents see her as a schemer, dismiss her and threaten her poor painter father, which only hardens Kiku’s impulsive resolve to pursue and marry her, and the two run away to a precarious second-tier theater life in the provinces.

Five years of struggle and penury affect his personality, but she remains the same meek, loving and self-abnegating. When opportunity does knock, offering success and forgiveness, it comes at an awful, supreme price.

Long takes and long shots mark Yozo Fuji and Minoru Miki’s unhurried cinematography. The infrequent cuts or lens movement and the stagey attention to the rhythms and grace of players and the spaces they inhabit, create a serene stateliness that balances the inherently melodramatic romance. With more said by showing less, operatic heartbreak and sentimentality and anger are pictured in formal precision, not a moment or scene or actor out of place.

(Released by Janus Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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