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 Led by libertine and (as yet) unpublished poet Tetsu Nakahama (Masahiro Higashide), the Guillotines are more romantic bandits with high ideals than serious revolutionaries.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)

Noriben – The Recipe for Fortune (のんちゃんのり弁, Akira Ogata, 2009)

noribenIt used to be that movies about marital discord typically ended in a tearful reconciliation and the promise of greater love and understanding between two people who’ve taken a vow to spend their lives together. These endings reinforce the importance of the traditional family which is, after all, what a lot of Japanese cinema is based on. However, times have changed and now there’s more room for different narratives – stories of women who’ve had enough with their useless, deadbeat man children and decide to make a go of things on their own.

So it is for the heroine of Noriben: The Recipe for Fortune (のんちゃんのり弁, Nonchan Noriben). Inspired by Kiwa Irie’s popular manga, Noriben follows the adventures of Komaki – a woman in her early 30s who gets her daughter dressed for school one morning but secretly takes her to the train station instead where they board a train headed for Komaki’s hometown. Having left her husband who has literary aspirations and consequently no job (the couple were living off, and with, his parents), Komaki has no firm plans other than moving back in with mother. Used to living off scraps and leftovers, she knows how to make her food go further and is also an excellent cook so the unusual layered bento boxes she makes for her little girl, Noriko, prove a big hit with the kids, and later the staff, at the local school.

Hooking back up with a former crush and now local photographer, Komaki ends up tasting the best meal of her life at a tiny eatery and suddenly hatches on the idea of opening a mini bento shop of her own. Of course, it’s a steep learning curve especially for a woman in her thirties with almost no work experience and no real knowledge of how to set up and run a business which is completely leaving aside the need to hone her cookery skills. If there’s one thing you can say about Komaki, it’s that once she’s set her mind on something she will make it happen and so her new life in her old town is just beginning.

Noriben addresses a lot of themes which are becoming fairly common at the moment including the “boomerang daughter” who suddenly arrives home following the breakdown of a marriage. Komaki’s soon to be ex-husband is not an enticing proposition and it seems that most, if not all, of what she says about him is true. He’s a layabout whose dreams of becoming an author are very unlikely to come true and, as his parents seem content to go on supporting him, his promises of getting a real job are most likely hollow too. There’s no real idea of the couple reconciling and when the husband suddenly turns up and starts behaving in an irresponsible way the situation ends in a bizarre marital street fight which does at least seem to clarify for the pair that their marriage really is well and truly over.

Komaki begins a tentative romance with her high school crush Takeo who took over his family’s photography studio though with the advent of digital technology and home printing the shop’s days are numbered. However, Komaki’s uncertain marriage status and Takeo’s diffidence both prove stumbling blocks to the path of romantic bliss and the film seems to imply that Komaki’s own headstrong character is also a problem when it comes to building relationships. Here, the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to say. Perhaps wanting to emphasise Komaki’s strides towards becoming a truly independent woman, it has her side step romantic entanglements but it also seems to declare the need for choice where there isn’t one.

In essence Noriben is a perfectly pleasant, if slightly bland, film that meanders its ways towards a bittersweet ending. Presumably intended to be a celebration of female empowerment as this ordinary woman makes a break from an unrewarding relationship to prove that she can do better on her own, the film only partly fulfils this message as it also comes with an air of sadness and sacrifice where Komaki also has to give up on various other parts of life in order to pursue her dream. That said, Noriben does offer a degree of playful comedy and down home style wisdom that make it a fairly enjoyable, if forgettable, experience.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.