Late Chrysanthemums is a fascinating character study on the lives of four retired geishas in postwar Tokyo. The film opens to the rhythmic sound of tapping, as the camera focuses on the image of a clock. It is a gentle reminder of the passage of time. A cheerful, mild mannered financial adviser, Itaya (Daisuke Kato), arrives late to the house of a retired geisha, the proud, determined Kin (Haruko Sugimura). Kin has remained unmarried after her days as a geisha, leading a modest life as a moneylender and investor. After completing their transaction, Kin instructs Itaya to evict a widow who has not paid rent, and cautions him against showing sympathy to the debtors. After their meeting, Kin leaves the house to personally collect debts from her former colleagues. The first visit is to Nobu (Sadako Sawamura) and her husband who run a small bar, entering through the back door in order to prevent the couple from sneaking out. Having married late and burdened with financial difficulties, Nobu continues to hold out hope of, one day, becoming a mother. Kin then visits Tomi (Yuko Mochizuki) in order to inquire about the validity of Tamae’s (Chikako Hosokawa) claim of ill health. Both widowed, Tomi and Tamae share the rental of a tenement house, struggling to make ends meet, and lamenting the increasing detachment of their adult children from their own lives. Tomi is insulted by Kin’s arrogance but, faced with increasing gambling debts, cannot afford to antagonize her. However, Kin is far from the heartless, calculating woman that people perceive her to be. As a geisha, Kin’s love affair with an obsessed client named Seki (Bontaro Miake) led to an ill-fated suicide pact. Now, years later, the doleful, dejected Seki combs the Tokyo streets in search of her. One day, a former suitor named Tabe (Ken Uehara) writes an unexpected letter wishing to see her. Despite her casual tone and feigned disaffection for Tabe’s impending visit, it is clear that she continues to have feelings for him as she retrieves his military photograph from her keepsake box. But is Tabe’s visit the long-awaited reunion that she had hoped for?
Mikio Naruse creates a poignant, insightful portrait of aging, love, and loneliness in Late Chrysanthemums. Similar to Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Naruse uses static interior shots and minimal camera movement throughout the film to reflect the passage of time and slowness of age. In contrast, the exterior shots show activity and vitality: the children running through the streets; a parade of street performers; a woman cleaning the front porch; a passerby imitating the walk of Marilyn Monroe. Naruse presents the dichotomy of the images as the paradox of middle-age – the daunting crossroads between promise and regret, tradition and modernity, homeostasis and change. As in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, the final shots show these resilient women against the backdrop of a staircase – a reminder of the ambiguity of life – and the courage of the soul.
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