The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (残菊物語, or Zangiku Monogatari) is a 1939 film by director Kenji Mizoguchi. Running about 140 minutes, it's longer than many of his other pictures, and so we get a wider, fuller experience of the major themes Mizoguchi is known for: patriarchal Japanese society; women's roles as the harlot and/or the mother, and to a lesser extent as the sister and/or the lover; sacrifice (that of Japanese women particularly, in the 1800s and early 20th century), and poverty as a catalyst for self-sacrifice and for the degeneration of morals and values. This film also shows the world of theater as it once was, and the sacrifice here is that of a woman for a male actor who has a ways to go before he can achieve anything like artistic greatness. Also different from other Mizoguchi films is that he didn't use any close-ups in this one. Its frequent long takes and traveling shots as well as the rich mise-en-scène also give Last Chrysanthemum a unique feel by comparison.
Set in Tokyo and Osaka in the 1880s, Last Chrysanthemum is centered on stage actor Kikunosuke Onoe (Shōtarō Hanayagi), the adopted son of a renowned Kabuki actor. While everyone praises the young Kikunosuke to his face, they criticize his feeble acting behind his back. But not Otoku (Kakuko Mori), a wet-nurse at Kikunosuke's father's house. She tells him that basically he sucks. This she does so he won't fall prey to self-delusion or conceit. She wants him, rather, to work hard towards his success. And he quickly falls in love with her for her honesty and true-blue devotion.
Otoku is promptly fired, and after several spurts of family drama from both families, the young lovers eventually leave Tokyo to be together. Later, on the road, Kikunosuke and especially Otoku suffer a number of hardships and indignities. Their travelling troupe even gets booted from a venue by a new act in town: butch female wrestlers in kimonos. Eventually Kikunosuke gets his chance to show off the acting skills he's developed and refined on the road, largely thanks to Otoku's support. The fans love him. Other actors laud his newfound talent. He can now return to Tokyo and probably recoup the respect of his father. Otoku, though, is unwell. She's happy, of course, that Kikunosuke has finally made it, but we know she herself will not make it, for she's given herself wholly to Kikunosuke who, at the end, stands godlike on a parade float, posing for his hordes of new fans, while Otoku lies in her deathbed.
Since it's longer, there's plenty to see. Many of the scenes are crammed with either theater paraphernalia or household elements. The kabuki scenes were a treat, as I hadn't seen theater filmed by Mizoguchi before. The various experimental camera angles and travelling shots, from one room to the next or one shop to the next, remarkably fill out the world depicted. Finally, the narrative feels thicker than the stories of some of his other films of the time, such as The Downfall of Osen (1935) and The Water Magician (1933), both similar in that the woman sacrifices herself for the success of the male. This "thickness" is likely the result of Mizoguchi spending more time fleshing out the lead male and female characters and the more nuanced portrayal of the drama unfolding between and around them.