You Were Like a Wild Chrysanthemum

We tend to take for granted when we go to the movies that the scenes we’re watching extend beyond the narrow borders of the frame, that we’re being given a single, incomplete view of a much larger world. At least, most filmmakers probably hope we do. The illusion that a soundstage could actually be a vast landscape isn’t just a mainstay of the director’s magic kit; it’s also the basis for the moral question that ought to haunt anyone who picks up a camera: why, at any given moment, show one slice of the world, and not another?

In Keisuke Kinoshita’s You Were Like a Wild Chrysanthemum, there’s nothing beyond the frame. All the action, save for five or so critical minutes, takes place in an oval hovering mid-screen, its edges faded, fringed on all four corners by empty space. It starts in fullscreen—before we’ve learned not to take the edges of the frame for granted—with a perpetually ancient-looking Chishû Ryû’s river-bound journey home. Looking back on the fields and mountains of his youth, he begins to reminisce about his first and only love, cut short by parental decree. As past turns to present, the frame shrinks to an oval, and, astoundingly, stays that way for nearly ninety minutes.

I can’t describe how stifling it is to know that what we’re seeing is all there is—to be plunged into a world so cramped that it can fit on a screen with space to spare. It’s an all-too-fitting device for a tale about forbidden, repressed affection, especially one seen through the tightened lens of memory. We know the fate of this young love from the start: it is, quite literally, history. That oval defines not only what Ryu’s elderly man does in fact remember, but what’s available for him to remember—not just what is seen, but what it’s possible to see. The impression we get, however illogical, is that nothing could have come to pass in Ryu’s youth except what lies within the frame. Movie flashbacks trade in shuffling up causes and effects—Kinoshita just makes the trick explicit. This must have happened, we’re led to think, because it did happen.

In You Were Like a Wild Chrysanthemum only one thing is certain: life is fragile, and love even more so. At least we know, though, that this maxim isn’t fragile—it has all the durability of a natural law, or even a decree of fate. In Farewell to Spring (1959), which Kinoshita made four years later, life is no less fragile, and the same goes for friendship, health, family, and good fortune. Here, though, the deterministic fringes of Chrysanthemum have fled to well outside the (very full) frame. If the five high school friends who reunite after years of separation in Farewell to Spring still find their dreams frustrated and their fortunes flagging, it’s their own damn fault.

Which is not to say we don’t pity them, weep with them, and wish the best for them. They don’t need our pardon, nor should they receive it—after all, their faults often don’t look too far from our own. To reveal those faults would be to spoil a narrative that, as it progresses, turns into a catalogue of miscommunication, backhandedness, and offense, but they include theft, romantic betrayal, and all sorts of sparring physical and verbal. There’s reconciliation, too, and moments of mutual understanding, but they don’t come about without struggle and sweat. One handicapped friend's hobbled dash though a nightlit city to save a doomed pal does for friendship what Denis Lavant’s Bowie-scored sprint in Mauvais Sang (1986) did for romantic love.

Farewell to Spring – which is actually in stunning color.

Farewell to Spring is about the inevitable drifting apart of people, and the inability of friends to guard their bond against circumstance and time—but it’s also about what it’s like to hold a friendship in your hands, awed at and afraid of having control over something so delicate and light. Most of the best melodramas—and Farewell to Spring is most definitely a melodrama – have an air of doomed inevitability around them: if two lovers make a covert rendezvous, we’d be shocked if one of their spouses didn’t walk in. Here, though, there’s no tragedy that feels as if it couldn’t have been averted, no loss imposed from up on high. There are only people, capable of making choices good and very bad—and of giving powerful reasons for both. This is one of those rare melodramas that would’ve won the Renoir stamp of approval.

Like the best Renoir, it’s bustling, hectic, and at times prosaic: Kinoshita is obsessed as much with the process of decision making as with its outcome. All five friends, and the crowd of family members, geishas, girlfriends, and business partners in their orbit, are always negotiating—negotiating the physical space between each other, but also matters of business, justice and love. Somehow, Kinoshita captures all the frenzy of momentary judgment-making with precious little camera movement; what little there is poised, graceful, reserved—but clearly not effortless. Every budge seems to have been realized only slowly, cautiously, in the face of great resistance. In the world of Farewell to Spring, order takes work.

Which is, in the end, perhaps what best distinguishes Farewell to Spring from You Were like a Wild Chrysanthemum. In the latter, earlier film, stasis was associated with constraints social, psychological, and even cosmic—the rules of custom, the limits of memory and the laws of fate. We wanted the cleansing fire of young love and got instead a gentle breeze. We wanted a world that extended far beyond our field of view, and got only a narrow circle. If anything, the universe of Farewell to Spring extends too far beyond our sight. What chance do we have of figuring out where these friends stand in relation to one another when they don’t know themselves – and especially when we also have to take into account a whole host of onlookers, each given just enough screen time to suggest that they, too, possess full, rich inner lives otherwise closed off to us? In such company, the film's few moments of stasis – an early group sing-along, a moonlit dance, a brief, astonishing string of late-film shots in which a lone woman stands silent by a lake—feel hard-won and richly deserved. Inaction might be a curse when it’s imposed from up on high, but it sure looks like a blessing when squeezed out of the tangled world below.

You Were like a Wild Chrysanthemum has its final screening Sunday, November 11 at 5:00pm and Farewell to Spring screens Monday, November 12 at 6:30pm, both as part of our 15-film retrospective of the films of Keisuke Kinoshita. Neither film is available on DVD. See both together and save with our double feature package!