There is a certain conception of the artist which, at least in the Western context, originates during the Romantic period. It is the idea of the artist as being distinctly apart from the rest of human society, as being isolated and alienated and consumed by his or her (probably just “his,” originally) art. And this isolation brings with it a tragic beauty and often a tragic fate, as we see in the aesthetically pleasing deaths of the second generation British Romantic poets: Shelly (drowned), Keats (tuberculosis), Byron (some complicated infection, sustained while fighting in someone else’s independence war). We see it in Thomas Mann’s novella Tonio Krueger, in which the protagonist leads a lonely, one might even say icy, life in service to his art. The ice metaphor is best asserted by Graham Greene, who said, “A writer [or artist] must have a splinter of ice in his heart.” Now, this is all in sharp contrast to the way the artist worked during the Renaissance and the Baroque (forgive the Eurocentrism on display here): in these contexts, the artist was a craftsman who worked for money, often to be had from a wealthy patron. In the 21st century, they would all be seen as sell-outs. Can’t you picture it? Can’t you picture the hipster dismissing Michelangelo as a “sell-out?”
But anyway, this Romantic, splinter-of-ice business lies at the heart of Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1939 masterpiece, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum. It narrates the tale of Kikunosuke, a young Kabuki actor whose love for a lower-class woman, Otoku, leads him to fall out with his father, leave his family’s company, and go on the road, seeking to perfect his craft while performing in increasingly dismal and disreputable settings. The relationship with Otoku is complex, because although one could argue that his love for Otoku is what brings him down in the world, it is also Otoku who makes him into a true artist. When he was with his father’s company, his acting was hammy and inelegant, but because he had his father’s name and was surrounded by flatterers, he wasn’t aware of it. Otoku was the only one who had the honesty to tell him that he wasn’t a good actor and it is Otoku who supports him at every step of the way as seeks to hone his craft while in exile from his father. Without Otoku, it is true that he wouldn’t have had his crisis, but he probably also would never have amounted to anything artistically.
But after years of suffering, Kikunosuke has the opportunity to reunite with his father’s company. They give him the opportunity to appear on stage with them and he gives a brilliant performance. All of his trials and suffering have paid off and he is now a good actor, worthy to reconcile with his family. All he has to do, the company tells him, is leave Otoku and apologize to his father. Now, Kikunosuke is not an asshole, and he at first refuses to even consider leaving Otoku, to whom he owes everything. But Otoku also wants him to return to his father’s company, even if it means leaving her. All of the privation and misery that she underwent with Kikunosuke was done in the service of advancing his career and his art, with the logical outcome being a return to a reputable Kabuki company like that of his father’s. If he doesn’t leave her, all her sacrifices will have been in vain. It is his art that matters above all other considerations. And so, despite his misgivings, Kikunosuke, with a splinter of ice in his heart, leaves Otoku and returns to his father’s company.
It’s just one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a number of devastating Mizoguchi films, including Sansho the Bailiff, upon the viewing of which the critic Anthony Lane said, “I left the theater a broken man”). It’s somewhat surprising to me, because the version of The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum that I saw, the one that Criterion has on Hulu, is in a state of advanced decay: it’s faded and scratched and the soundtrack is full of hissing and distortion, but one quickly forgets it as one becomes absorbed in the happenings on the screen and in Mizoguchi’s lovely mise-en-scène, for which he was renowned. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is one of the great tragic stories in world cinema, just as spiritually moving as Bicycle Thieves or Tokyo Story. If it is not as internationally well-known as those films, it is only because it was made at a time when Japanese cinema had not yet made its appearance on the international scene (and what a lack that must have been, a world cinema that didn’t take Japanese cinema into account). Let us hope that a restoration of Mizoguchi’s pre-war masterpiece will be undertaken, so that it might appear with as much pristine clarity as other Criterion releases of great Mizoguchi films, like Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff.