The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine (菊とギロチン 女相撲とアナキスト, Takahisa Zeze, 2018)

Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine poster 1“I see it now, we can’t change anything” a despondent would-be-revolutionary decries in a moment of despair. Almost 100 years later, you might have to concede they have a point when the world finds itself on a tipping point once again and the same old prejudices refuse to disappear. Takahisa Zeze’s The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine (菊とギロチン 女相撲とアナキスト, Kiku to Guillotine Onna Zumo to Anarchism) casts an unflinching eye back towards the Japan of 1923 caught in the aftermath of a devastating natural disaster which followed on from a chaotic era of rapid social change and bewildering modernisation during which a series of battles were being fought for the future direction of a nation still trying to define itself in world dominated by empires.

When the Great Kanto Earthquake struck claiming mass loss of life and extreme damage to infrastructure, the ensuing chaos gave rise to a vicious rumour that Koreans were taking advantage of the situation to ferment the independence movement by poisoning wells and committing arson leading to a pogrom against anyone who failed to prove themselves Japanese enough to satisfy the mob. Meanwhile, the same forces also turned on political opponents whose influence they perceived as destructive to their own aims culminating in the murder of prominent anarchist Sanae Osugi along with his feminist wife Noe Ito and their six-year-old nephew.

We begin, however, with a different band of outsiders in the Tamaiwa itinerant female sumo wrestler troupe many of whom have taken refuge in an isolated world of female solidarity in order to escape abusive relationships. Kiku (Mai Kiryu) is one such woman who found the courage to run away from a violent husband on catching sight of the powerful female wrestlers who made her realise that she too could become strong like them. Having accepted that “weak people can’t change anything”, Kiku has vowed to become “strong” in order to claim her own agency and ensure that she can’t be pushed around ever again.

Meanwhile, an anarchist sect known as the Guillotines are fermenting a more general kind of revolution but have not been very successful and are now on the run from the authorities which is how they end up running into the female wrestlers and more or less bringing them into the struggle. Led by libertine and (as yet) unpublished poet Tetsu Nakahama (Masahiro Higashide), the Guillotines are more romantic bandits with high ideals than serious revolutionaries. They rob the rich to fund their “activism” but spend most of the money on sex and drink while plotting revenge for the murder of Osugi with various schemes which imply that at heart they aren’t so different from that which they hate.

Nevertheless, the forces of darkness are rising and history tells us that, temporally at least, they will win. The vigilante militias which carried out the massacres were largely made-up of farmer soldiers who’d served in Russia and experienced terrible hardship. Unable to bear the idea that their traumatic wartime experiences had been a senseless waste, they doubled down on militarist ideology and insisted on their nationalistic superiority. This led them to hate, to regard anything that lay outside of their code as inferior and dangerous. Though the massacres were condemned by the government and the perpetrators prosecuted for their crimes, the convictions were largely quashed a short time later which is why we see our major villains rewarded by the state and our revolutionary “heroes” imprisoned for their resistance towards state oppression and desire to create a fairer, more equal society.

Ironically enough, Nakahama’s big utopian idea is an overly idealistic vision for a future Manchuria which in hindsight proves extremely uncomfortable but is perhaps an indication of the naivety of the times. Even so, the Guillotines for all their romanticism are essentially progressive in their thinking and in full support of sexual equality, insisting on the necessity of the wrestlers to embrace their physical capabilities in order to defend themselves against an oppressive and patriarchal society fuelled by male violence. Though this in itself might be mildly problematic in implying that in order to become “equal” women must learn to be more like men, it also plays into the film’s subtle sense of irony in which the tools of militarism are being subverted in order to oppose it. The “intellectual” Guillotines find their revolutions failing, while fighting fire with fire may be the only surefire way to win even if it legitimises the problematic act of violence in the process. Then again, as another of the Guillotines puts it, the truly strong are those who have no need of killing. 

In any case, the Tamaiwa stable becomes a tiny enclave of progressive values built on female solidarity though they ultimately discover that solidarity is not quite enough and they cannot protect each other from the ravages of the times without external assistance. Even so, they attempt to hold the line, literally pushing back against the fascist incursion while insisting on their right to resist as human beings with will and agency. The prognosis seems bleak. 100 years later the same battles are still being fought and the same tensions rising in the wake of new disasters yet there are also those who will continue to resist and like the Tamaiwa wrestlers refuse to give in to those who threaten to restrict their freedom.


The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Narratage (ナラタージュ, Isao Yukisada, 2017)

Narratge poster 1Isao Yukisada made his name with the jun-ai landmark Crying Out Love in the Centre of the World back in 2004. Adapted from a best selling novel (which had also been adapted as a TV drama around the same time), Crying Out Love was the epitome of a short lived genre in which melancholy, lovelorn and lonely middle-aged heroes looked back on the lost love of their youths. Jun-ai has never really gone away though it might not be so popular as it once was, but the focus has perhaps shifted and in an unexpected direction. Narratage (ナラタージュ), once again adapted from a best selling novel though this time one by an author still in her early 20s when the book was written (incidentally smack in the middle of the jun-ai boom), is another sad story of frustrated love though in contrast to the jun-ai norm, its tragedies revolve around loves which were tested and subsequently failed, leaving the broken hearted romantics trapped within their own tiny bubbles of nostalgia.

The heroine, Izumi (Kasumi Arimura), narrates her tale from three distinct periods of her young life speaking from the perspective of her still young self now living as a lonely office worker. A lonely high school misfit, she found herself drawn to a sensitive teacher, Hayama (Jun Matsumoto), who rescued her from despair through an invitation to join the drama club. Relying on him ever more, she began regularly visiting his office for guidance and the pair bonded over their shared love of cinema. On graduation Izumi decided to declare her love, but earned a sad story in return and resolved to move on with her life. Then in the second year of university, she gets an unexpected phone call, calling her back to help out with a play at the school’s culture festival.

Yukisada begins with a rather unsubtle metaphor in which the older Izumi lovingly fondles an antique pocket watch which has long since stopped ticking. 20-something Izumi apparently has very little in her life, a pang of melancholy envy passing her face as she talks to a friend on the phone at home with a new baby while she prepares for another lonely night of (unnecessary) overtime. Where the heroes of jun-ai obsess over true love lost, Izumi struggles to face the fact that the man she loved did not, could not, love her in the way that she wanted him to. There is, of course, something deeply inappropriate in the awkward relationship between Izumi and Hayama who are a teenage student and her teacher respectively – connect as they might, there are moments when a line is crossed even while Izumi is still a schoolgirl which is in no way justified by the presentation of their (non)romance as a natural consequence of their mutual suffering.

Hayama and Izumi are presented as equals but they aren’t and never could be. As if to continue the chain, university era Izumi gets a love confession of her own from old classmate Ono (Kentaro Sakaguchi) who has apparently been carrying a torch for her all this time. Ono’s love, like Izumi’s, is originally generous and altruistic – he understands her unrequited affection for Hayama and perhaps even sympathises, but once Izumi decides to try and make things work with someone who loves her it all starts to go wrong. Ono is jealous, possessive, desperate. He demands to inspect her phone, insists she erase Hayama from her mind and devote herself only to him. Izumi, sadly, goes along with all of this, even when her attempts to turn to Ono for protection when afraid and alone are petulantly refused. When the inevitable happens and she decides to try and sort things out with Hayama, Ono tries to exert an authority he doesn’t really have, ordering her to bow to him (literally), and harping on about all the hard work he personally has put into their relationship which, he feels, she doesn’t really appreciate while berating her for not really loving him enough. As it turns out, neither of Izumi’s romantic options is particularly healthy or indeed viable.

At one particularly unsubtle moment, Izumi (alone) attends a screening of Naruse’s Floating Clouds – another film about a couple who fail to move on from a failed love affair though their struggle is ultimately more about the vagaries of the post-war world than it is about impossible love. Meanwhile the school play is to be A Midsummer Night’s Dream which is also about misplaced and unrequited loves which spontaneously sort themselves out thanks to some fairy magic and a night in a confusing forest. No magic powers are going to sort out Izumi’s broken heart for her. Like the pocket watch, her heart has stopped ticking and her romantic outlook appears to be arrested at the schoolgirl level. She and Hayama maybe equally damaged people who save and damn each other in equal measure, but the central messages seem to be that difficult, complicated, and unresolved loves and the obsessive sadness they entail produce nothing more than inescapable chains of loneliness. Simplistic as it may be, Izumi at least is beginning to find the strength to set time moving once again prompted perhaps by another incoming bout of possibly requitable love lingering on the horizon.


International trailer (English subtitles)