Kenji Mizoguchi and the Cinema of Obfuscation

Gonjurô Kawarazaki and Yoneko Mogami in The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939)

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum invites us in, then makes us uncomfortable. This is the cinema of denial.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Cast: Shotaro Hanayagi, Kakuko Mori
Distributor: Criterion Collection
Release date: 2016-09-13

In seeking a working definition of the role of the film director, we might do worse than to claim that the director affords us an opportunity to see things spectacularly. The word “spectacular”, of course, derives from the Latin spectaculum, meaning a show, a performance, a public display. The “spectacular” is an opening onto beauty or wonderment that appeals specifically to the eyes. It's an ocular means of allurement.

There's something intriguingly inhospitable about a Mizoguchi film.
Sight, along with hearing, is one of Aquinas’s maxime cognoscitivi; that is, one of the two senses most bound up with knowledge of the world insofar as these senses are more capable of abstracting from the bodily toward the universal truth. But whereas hearing is often discussed in terms of immersion (sound invades our ears and we have no “earlids” to close it out; sound pulses through our bodies, modifying our corporeal vibrations to its own), sight appears to involve distance. It's partly for this reason that we rely so heavily upon sight as a guarantor of objectivity: seeing, as they say, is believing.

To hear something is to unite oneself with that thing, to internalize it (even if unwillingly or with great skepticism). To see something is to be aware of the distance between subject and object. Whereas hearing threatens to blur the distinction between the subject and the outside world, sight reaffirms it, protects the borders of our subjectivity, renders us the sovereign liege over the subjugated domain of our visual field. To see is to objectify, to remain at a safe distance, and to vouchsafe unto our subjectivity a sense of control, of mastery.

Sight and hearing are also the two senses most closely aligned with experiences of beauty. This presents an intriguing conundrum for sight. Our appreciation of beauty urges us to bring it into closer proximity. Like Goethe’s Faust, when we experience beauty in its plenitude we are tempted to freeze the moment, to cry out “Abide, thou art so fair!” Sight, as the sense that most distinctly insists upon distance, would seem to thwart our desire for propinquity. But then again, Walter Benjamin insists that the beauty of art is already bound up in a dialectical tension between our longing to eliminate our distance from it and its ineluctable recession from our attempts to grasp it. This is what Benjamin describes as the aura of art; that is, art’s withdrawal into hieratic obscurity as it beckons us to follow, never succumbing to the blandishments of our admiration.

Film has distance built into it. That screen separates us from the images we seek to come to know. They are projections, shimmering phantasmagoria, forever in the distance but inviting spectators to imaginatively leap over the chasm inherent in observation -- to project ourselves into these inviting projections. This may be why the most memorable instances of mise-en-scène in film tend to involve grand vistas, larger-than-life imagery, and an obsession with either the monumental public display or the inclusive enclosure of the intimate moment.

Think of the trial scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory or the scenes inside the Senate chamber in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Both scenes attempt to give you access to the public spectacle of law. We see its inner workings and its many hypocrisies. We enter into the fray of ethical fervor on one side and moral indifference on the other.

Think now of the mirror scene in Orson WellesCitizen Kane, or its noirish cousin in The Lady from Shanghai. These scenes confront an audience with the recursive infinity of reflection, reminding viewers that they have been watching mere images on a flat screen all along, that their affective investments have been devoted to a play of light reflected from a surface. And yet, these scenes also draw us into the psychological aporias of their antiheros. Again, the scenes are shot in such a way to give us access -- even if it is access that forces us to contemplate the inaccessibility of the motives of the protagonists.

Of course, similar descriptions apply to less celebrated mises-en-scène. The basic impulse of most film direction seems to be to draw the audience into a scene, to immerse them in the environment of the film, to reveal things, to make the scenes spectacular and as such to open them up to the delectation of sight.

Another approach, however, is possible and it's one that we see used to great effect in Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939). Mizoguchi is, of course, justifiably celebrated for his long takes and his avoidance of close-ups. It was during the time of Chrysanthemum that Mizoguchi developed his “one-scene-one-shot” technique. Indeed, for a film that ranges over two hours, Chrysanthemum has a mere 140 cuts, whereas a film of this length generally has between 400 and 800. The camera invites the viewer, in one sense, to dwell within these scenes -- or perhaps the camera elicits a desire on the part of the viewer to dwell, to linger here (but then, as we will see, thwarts that desire).

Mizoguchi found close-ups to be invasive, believing they removed the viewer from the scene. It's easy to understand Mizoguchi’s disdain for the close-up, which would seem somehow inimical to the concentration that builds in a long take. The close-up jolts the viewer out of the environment established by the lingering camera. Moreover, one would justifiably imagine that Mizoguchi’s preference for the long take was yet another means (like those explored above) of bringing the viewer into the scene, of welcoming her into the filmic moment and offering her a position to occupy within that projected space.

But this is precisely what Mizoguchi so often strives to avoid. In many of his shots, Mizoguchi obstructs the viewer’s access to the scene through a variety of means and a level of insistence that sometimes strikes one as verging on mannerism. He places main characters out of the shot or with their backs to the camera even when they are the focus of attention within a scene. He obscures the actors behind screens and lattices, emphasizes asymmetrical dispositions of characters so the composition lacks a center, and allows the camera to linger in establishing shots much longer than needed to demonstrate the location of the coming scene.

In one example, we see a dinner party where the guests are gossiping about the main character of the film, Kikunosuke (Shotaro Hanayagi). Kikunosuke is the adopted son of a famous kabuki actor and the young man is supposed to carry on the tradition of the family name. But the dinner guests point out that he's not very skillful in his art. The entire scene is shot so that the actors are placed behind a grate, denying the viewer clear access to the conversation. We hear it clearly but the expressions on the faces and the gestures the guests make are all obscured by the grate.

In another example, perhaps the most extreme case, a young woman enters a home to speak with a young man of authority. She's ushered out of the foyer where the camera is stationed into another room. The camera, however, lingers in the foyer, unmoving. All of the main characters for that scene are no longer in view but the camera remains stubbornly still. We watch the young man’s wife shuffle about the foyer, we see other men descend the staircase, but it all feels so frustratingly superfluous and merely detains us from seeing the interview that we desperately want to see. This is the cinema of denial.

Over and again Mizoguchi denies us access to the filmic moment. One finds oneself craning one’s neck in an impossible bid to get a better view. The long shot asks us to dwell in the scene but offers us no secure position from which to view the unfolding of the drama. There's something intriguingly inhospitable about a Mizoguchi film. We are invited in and then made to feel uncomfortable. The emphasis on obfuscation and obstruction illuminates a basic tenet of the atmosphere of this film. We are observing here a closed world, the world of kabuki theater, steeped in tradition and hierarchical in a manner that seems archaic in the modernization of Japan.

Mizoguchi’s mise-en-scène continually reminds us that we do not belong here, we have no place in this society because all places have been claimed and are jealously guarded. In this way the mise-en-scène reinforces what the main characters come to discover. When Kikunosuke decides to strike out on his own rather than give up Otoku (Kakuko Mori), the only woman who has shown any concern for his career and the development of his artistry, he soon realizes that a kabuki actor can get nowhere without the security of an established name behind him.

Mizoguchi’s approach to the mise-en-scène makes palpable the stultifying rigidity of this world. Yet, Kikunosuke wishes to enrich himself as an artist. To leave his place only to return to it, but to return to it so as to have earned that position. He wants to show himself worthy of the name so as to resume that name, not to simply reap the benefits that come with that reputation despite his lack of skill. Unfortunately in the rigid, unforgiving world of Chysanthemum, Kikunosuke’s restoration comes only at a terrible cost. In a sense, Mizoguchi’s handling of each scene of the film, his refusal to let us penetrate this world, had been telling us all along that success here would only come after a bitter sacrifice.


Criterion Collection recently released a new Blu ray edition of The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum. This particular release comes with fewer special features than is often the case with Criterion. The extras that are here, however, are well worth one’s attention. The essay on the insert by Dudley Andrew is, in my estimation, more revealing and intriguing than is generally the case with insert essays and the interview with film critic Phillip Lopate is a penetrating look at Mizoguchi’s approach with carefully selected clips from the film that illustrate the points Lopate makes with the utmost clarity.

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