I have previously spoken about Mizoguchi Kenji, sort of the "middle child" of the three canonically great Japanese directors* (Ozu Yasujiro started around the same time, but had major hits earlier; Kurosawa Akira came along a good while later), currently doomed to being the least-known of them; about his particular geometry-based aesthetic, contrasting the formalism of his compositions and elegant camera movements with the raw pain and suffering laid upon his characters; about his life-long commitment to exposing the cruel treatment of women in Japanese culture.

In a career reaching close to 90 films, most of which no longer exist, it's hard to say when Mizoguchi first came upon these tendencies, but it was apparently early, to judge from the evidence of two of his earliest sound films recently released on Criterion's Eclipse line (Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion, both from 1936), and from the slightly later The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums of 1939 (substitute "Last" for "Late" if you're more comfortable that way), which all show the quintessential elements of Mizoguchi's late masterpieces, albeit in a much less ambitious form matching the comparatively anemic state of Japanese cinema in the years running up to World War II.

In fact, these three each show a progressively greater amount of what we might barbarically call "Mizoguchisms", leading me to suppose that the 1930s were a decade of experimentation and transition for the filmmaker, aesthetically at least. In that respect, Chrysanthemums is probably the most important of the three, given that it shows the director achieving a stylistic limit that he'd really never surpass: if the earlier films seem like works by a younger version of the man who exploded onto the international stage with Life of Oharu, Chrysanthemums feels like the same director, working on cheaper film stock.

By most accounts - and I certainly lack the knowledge to call the research of dedicated Japanese cinema scholars into question - Chrysanthemums is the film in which Mizoguchi first started experimenting heavily with super-long takes. Sisters of the Gion had poked in that direction a little bit, with an opening shot which lasts somewhere in the vicinity of three minutes, a final shot that breaks past two minutes, and plenty of extended takes scattered in along the way. That's nothing compared to Chrysanthemums, though, which features numerous scenes of five and six and seven minutes, often consisting of nothing but a wide shot of people talking (I have read from questionably reliable sources that the longest takes in the film were limited only by the length of a reel of film available to a Japanese filmmaker in those days). Of course, there are also many shots of the same length which boast the director's famed lateral tracking shots, meant to scan across the action in the same way as one would read a traditional scroll (and for what I believe might be the first time, Mizoguchi applies this same technique to the opening credits; it's a trick he'd return to often).

The relationship between the director's visual language and the story of his film is much more pronounced here than it was in his '36 films, owing in no small part to the specificity of his story. Working as usual with screenwriter Yoda Yoshikata (who adapted Muramatsu Shôfû's novel with Kawaguchi Matsutarô), Mizoguchi here tells the tale of Kikunosuke (Hanayagi Shôtarô), the adopted son of a great Tokyo kabuki actor named Kikugoro (Kawarazaki Gonjurô). It is expected that Kikunosuke will follow his adopted father's path and become another great performer, but it has been his misfortune to surround himself with yes-men who over-praise his mediocre work, and so it falls to his infant brother's wet nurse Otoku (Mori Kakuko) to tell him the bitter truth: he is not a great actor, and if he doesn't change things, he never will be.

Because of her honesty, Kikunosuke falls in love with Otoku, to Kikugoro's intense displeasure, and a short while later, the young man has banished himself to the sticks, where he will learn to be a great actor without trading on the family name or die trying, and where he can love Otoku freely. That takes us about one hour into a 142 minute film, and for the rest of the time the story marches inexorably to tragedy and late redemption, as Kikunosuke loses everything before he finally has suffered enough to learn the secrets of great acting.

Compared to many of Mizoguchi's films, this is oddly male-centric. The film is primarily about a father-son dynamic that goes sour and is then rebuilt, stronger than ever, and it's a very strong story for that. But the only real genuflect paid towards the director's pet theme lies in how Otoku willingly sacrifices of herself over and over again to help a man who would never do the same thing for her; the film's greatest tragedy is ultimately that Otoku dies to make Kikunosuke a better man, just as he finally realises that the only thing he has ever wanted, more than fame or even his father's respect, is her love. But that's hardly as feminist as many of the director's best films.

But anyway, back to style: for a start, Chrysanthemums features three kabuki pieces for any length of time (around 5-10 minutes each), and the idea of kabuki theater is never far away, anytime during the film. In the West, we have a fairly reductive but not inherently inaccurate idea that "kabuki" means "rigidly formulaic", and Chrysanthemums runs with that as a metaphor in both the narrative and in the visuals. Everything about this story is how how Kikunosuke is trapped by the inflexible path he has started down, and that is reflected in the imagery, which more often than not lock Kikunosuke in tiny corners, and marginalise his role in the drama - in fact, the single most dramatic moment that Kikunosuke has in the story, when he repudiates his father and announces that he will leave Tokyo, occurs off-screen, as the camera is close on on his adopted mother. The long takes reduce the hero to a bug on a pin in a box: he cannot escape our gaze, and since Mizoguchi tends to work in reasonably wide shots, that gaze is even fairly indifferent: Kikunosuke's other great moment, when he has a triumphant performance in Osaka, the city that once mocked him at his lowest, occurs in a long shot with the actor made-up so that we can't even tell which character he is.

Still, though this is a terrifically important film for the director's aesthetic, I can't honestly say I prefer it that much among the films of his that I've seen. Unusually for a Mizoguchi film, there really aren't any great performances, and the story seems to take more time - both as a film (142 minutes) and as a narrative (six years) - than it can possibly justify. I'd take Sisters of the Gion, over this film, honestly, even if its aesthetic isn't so mature: it has a lot more passion on-camera and behind the camera, nor is the film's look so intellectually stimulating as his last masterpieces, like Oharu and Ugetsu. It's still a great film, as good as most of the pre-war Japanese films I've seen (not a very big number, mind you), but I must confess to finding its reputation a bit inflated. There's a line between "great film" and "masterpiece", and Mizoguchi crossed it enough times that I think it's fair to point out one of the instances where he didn't.