Sunday, 15 July 2012

Zangiku Monogatari (1939)

Zangiku Monogatari
It is good that these are not official reviews, but only my own comments on the movies. I feel hopelessly inadequate to review Zangiku Monogatari (The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums). The problem is cultural. I see a movie from my personal viewpoint. I can to some extent stretch it and try to see it from another person’s viewpoint. This is something I am getting ample training in by watching all these old films. You have to somehow try to see it from the perspective of people of the age, hard as it sometimes is. I cannot say that I am always successful of that, but at least that is mostly just a gap in time. To see a movie from an entirely different culture and one that is portraying traditional customs to boot that is much more difficult.

At its core the problem is that there are simply too many premises to accept, both in the outline and in the detail.

Now you might be thinking that I am simply rejecting the movie or the culture behind it, but that is not the case at all. This is in many ways a beautiful movie, well made and as a first Japanese entry far better than the first Chinese entry, Ye Ban Ge Sheng (1937). I just cannot fully accept the crisis and the motivations of the characters. It is just too alien to me.

---- Lots of spoiler!-----

Kiko is an actor in the traditional Kabuki tradition of the 19th century and the son of a famous and highly respected clan. He is the “young master” and deferred to by everybody though his acting is no good. The only one who tell him the truth is Otoku, a lowly servant woman, the wet-nurse of his brothers child. This is a scandal in itself. A servant daring to be critical to a master! Even for her to be around him is impudent. Kiko finds her honesty refreshing and insist that they spent time together. Very innocent time of sharing a melon. Otoku refuses but must do as a master commands, yet it is her who are punished when they are caught. She gets fired and he gets sympathy for being seduced by an impudent servant.

Already here it is quite clear that I have some trouble following the logic of the story. It gets worse.

Otoku knows that the only way she can protect Kiku from the great crime of being associated with a servant is to disappear and make him forget her. Who cares what she wants. But Kiko will not forget her. Out of the blue he has fallen in love with her (must have been a really good melon) and he is determined to find her, which he eventually does. The family is very upset about this, this great scandal, and since he will not give up Otoku he leaves the family and tries his luck on his own at a theater in Osaka.

Otoku joins him to help him improve in his acting and seem genuinely surprised when he insists on marrying her. For all her help he treats her poorly, slaps her and takes her money. His acting is probably improving, but his career is going nowhere fast and when the traveling show he has ended up in folds Otoku pleads with Kiku’s family that he can come back to the family show. No worries, but she cannot come along, you know, she is a servant.

Kiko returns in glory and becomes the big star. He is upset that the family disposed of Kiku but accepts that both family and Kiku thinks this is for the best. Only when the show returns to Osaka and Otoku’s father reports that Otoku is dying does the family relent and accepts Otoku. Kiku visits his dying wife who is very pleased that they are now official man and wife and that Kiku has great success. Then she dies.

---- Spoiler ends----

So who is Otoku? A lowly servant who devotes her life to Kiku becoming a great actor? Is that really it? Come on. And Kiku? If we accept that he insists of defying tradition and cross a class barrier why is he still treating her as a servant? In a way the answer is simple: Because she is acting like a servant. Yet his attempt at reaching her does not seem sincere. He commands her for his own gratification. True love indeed.

I also have a problem with the family. The first part of kicking out the servant for a fault of the master is bad enough, but we do not really have to go far back in our own past to find similar sentiments. The painful part is that despite Otoku has kept Kiku afloat for 5 years, despite his becoming a great actor is through her insistence, despite it is thanks to her that he lands the job at the family theater and finally despite her failing health, it is the most obvious thing that she cannot return with Kiku to Tokyo. That is so heartless that I find the excuse of cultural differences rather lame. That may be the point of the movie, but I suspect it is rather to make her sacrifice so much more glorious. That she gave everything, herself and her life to his career, that this must be true love.

To me this is just too difficult to accept.

Maybe had I been Japanese I would have appreciated it better. What I see is a beautiful movie, elaborate sets, costumes and perfect historical and cultural authenticity but a story and a point that I find deeply problematic.

Yet, I can definitely see why it is in the book.



  1. I believe this was some sort of tribute from Mizoguchi to Noh theater. What I don't like is how slow the film moves and the directors incessant use of static long takes.

    1. Yes, there is a lot of Noh references.
      I am actually okay with the style of filming. It is a lot like Ozu and the film is not overly long. It would seem those Japanese directors really liked to dwell on the moment.