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 Led by libertine and (as yet) unpublished poet Tetsu Nakahama (Masahiro Higashide), the Guillotines are more romantic bandits with high ideals than serious revolutionaries.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

Three Stories of Love (恋人たち, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2015)

Three Stories of Love posterRyosuke Hashiguchi began his career with a collection of sometimes melancholy but ultimately hopeful tales of gay life in contemporary Japan. In 2008 he branched out with the finely tuned emotional drama All Around Us which followed an ordinary couple’s attempt to come to terms with the loss of a child. Three Stories of Love (恋人たち, Koibitotachi) finds him in much the same territory as he takes three very different yet equally burdened romantics and sets them on a path towards a kind of acceptance while suffering inside a system where everyone seems to be intent on exploiting other people’s unhappiness.

The first of our heroes, Atsushi (Atsushi Shinohara), is a bridge inspector whose wife was murdered in a random street attack three years previously. Ever since then he’s suffered with depression and found it difficult to hold down a job or a life and has become obsessed with getting personal revenge on the killer who pleaded the insanity defence and was committed to psychiatric care rather than to prison. Meanwhile, across town, listless housewife Toko (Toko Narushima) is trapped in a loveless marriage to a domineering husband and living with her snooty mother-in-law. Toko’s only outlet is compulsively rewatching a shaky video of the time she and her friends witnessed Princess Masako briefly exit a building. The third of our heroes, Shinomiya (Ryo Ikeda), is a self involved lawyer with a longstanding crush on his straight best friend from college who has since married and had a young son.

The three strands are only loosely interconnected, occurring as they do in the same city at the same time, though they do each share a sense of defeat and impossibility as each of our heroes struggles either to escape from or come to terms with their difficult circumstances. Atsushi’s case is perhaps the most extreme as he deals not only with his grief and anger but with the persistent stigma of being involved with violent crime. Visited by his bubbly sister-in-law he idly remembers to ask after the man she was about to marry last time they met only to be told that he abruptly dumped her after her sister’s death and not only that, all her friends abandoned her too. Getting revenge has become Atsushi’s only reason for living – he stopped paying his health insurance to get money together for fancy lawyers like Shinomiya who convinced him he could lodge a civil case but were only ever stringing him along to fleece him of money he never really had.

Shinomiya is, in a sense, our villain. He listens dispassionately to his wealthy clients – including one woman seeking a divorce (Chika Uchida) because her husband forgot to tell her he was burakumin until after they were married, but privately mocks them and is so unpleasant to his colleagues that someone eventually pushes him down a flight of stairs, breaking his leg. Intensely self-involved, he cares little for other people’s feelings save for those of his forlorn love Satoshi (So Yamanaka). Satoshi’s wife Etsuko, originally friendly and understanding, eventually takes against Shinomiya either because she doesn’t like the way he fiddled with her son’s ears or resents the two men cooing over the child and accidentally making her feel like an unwelcome outsider. Introducing his much younger boyfriend only seems to make matters worse, though the relationship does seem to have its problematic dimensions even if not in the way Etsuko decides to interpret them as Shinomiya takes pains to run down his partner in public and berate him at home. It’s difficult to resist the interpretation that Shinomiya prefers younger lovers because he can boss them around and, in truth, he doesn’t even seem very attached to this one, but he’s about to get a very rude awakening when it comes to learning that he’s not as permanent a part of everyone else’s lives as he seems to think.

Atsushi is fleeced by the Shinomiyas of the world and his heartless health insurers, but he’s wily enough to spot the obvious scam in the lovelorn office boy’s sudden enthusiasm for magical beautifying water which turns out to be part of a bar lady’s (Tamae Ando) nefarious scheme to resell the tapped variety with some of her own glamour shots attached to the front. Toko is wily enough to see it too, though she eventually succumbs when would-be-chicken-farmer Fujita (Ken Mitsuishi), whom she met at work during a difficult moment with her boss, delivers her some on spec. Lonely and insecure, Toko appreciates the unexpected interest but Fujita is not the white knight she first assumes him to be and is eventually exposed as yet another scam artist gunning for the little money she might have been able to hide away in her rabidly penny pinching home.

Shinomiya might feel himself proud to be among the fleecers rather than the fleeced, but he soon gets a comeuppance in realising he has wilfully pulled the wool over his own eyes, blinded in a sense by love. Toko, meanwhile, has learned to accept the latent feudalism of the modern society in her obsession with royalty though a brief attempt to transcend her feelings of innate inferiority seems destined to end in failure if perhaps engineering a mild improvement in her familial circumstances. Atsushi alone, a man whose job it is to assess the foundations, begins to find a degree of equilibrium thanks largely to nothing more than a good friend willing to listen and share his own suffering. Exploitation of others’ misfortunes and a series of social prejudices conspire against our three lovers but perhaps there is something to be said for learning to find the blue sky from whichever vantage point you happen to be occupying no matter how small and distant it may be.


Three Stories of Love was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Name (名前, Akihiro Toda, 2018)

b5_olNames are a complicated business. Most people do not choose them for themselves, yet they come to define an identity or at least provide a substantial peg on which to hang one. If you give someone a fake name you are by definition shielding your essential self from view, refusing connection either in fear of discovery or intention to harm. The protagonist of Akihiro Toda’s The Name (名前, Namae) adopts several different titles as a part of his increasingly disordered everyday life in which he takes a hammer to his original identity in an ongoing act of guilt-ridden self harm. Meanwhile, his teenage would-be saviour, engages in a little role play of her own hoping to discover an essential truth about herself only to be disappointed, in one sense, and then perhaps find something better.

Masao Nakamura (Kanji Tsuda), if that is his real name, is not just leading a double life but is currently engaged in a number of iffy scams each compartmentalised under a different title and in which he plays an entirely different version of himself. Once a successful businessman, personal tragedy, marital breakdown, and bankruptcy have left him a floundering, cynical mess living in a rundown rural hovel with a pernickety neighbour and a decidedly lax approach to housekeeping. Masao’s main “job” appears to be working in a recycling plant where he’s managed to wangle a preferential contract by telling the higher-ups that his (non-existent) wife is seriously ill in hospital. Just as Masao’s scheme is about to be discovered, a mysterious teenage girl suddenly appears out of nowhere and plays along with Masao’s sob story, claiming to be his daughter come to remind him that he needs to leave earlier today because mum has been moved to a different hospital (which is why his boss’ contact had never heard of her).

Emiko Hayama (Ren Komai), as we later find out, is a more authentic soul but has decided on a brief flirtation with duplicity in observing the strange and cynical life of the morally bankrupt Masao. Facing similar issues but coming from the opposite direction, the pair meet in the middle – regretful middle-age and anxious youth each doing battle with themselves to define their own identities. Like Masao, Emiko is also living in less than ideal circumstances with her bar hostess single-mother, forced into adulthood ahead of schedule through the need to take care of herself, purchasing groceries, cooking, and keeping the place tidy. Thus her approach to Masao has, ironically enough, a slightly maternal component as she tries to get him back on his feet again – cleaning the place up and giving him something more productive to do than wasting his idle moments in bars and other unsavoury environments.

Masao’s current problems are perhaps more down to a feeling of failure rather than the failure itself. Once successful, happily married and excited about the future, he felt it all crash down around his ears through no real fault of his own. Nevertheless he blamed himself – his intensive work ethic placed a strain on his relationship with his wife and his all encompassing need for success blinded him to what it was that really mattered. By the time he realised it was already too late, and so it’s no surprise that he longs to escape himself through a series of cardboard cutout personalities, enacting a bizarre kind of wish fulfilment coupled with masochistic desire for atonement.

Now cynical and morally apathetic, Masao lets Emiko in on a secret about the grown-up world – it’s all lies. You have to put on disguise or two to get by; the world will not accept you for who you really are. Teenage girls might know this better than most, though Emiko is a slow learner. She might tell Masao that pretending to be other people is fun, but the one role she hasn’t yet conquered is that of Emiko Hayama – something which particularly irritates the demanding director of the theatre club she’s been cajoled into joining. Like Masao, Emiko’s life begins to fall apart through no fault of her own as she finds herself swallowed up by a typically teenage piece of friendship drama when her best friend’s boyfriend dumps her in order to pursue Emiko. Branded a scheming harlot and ejected from her group of friends, berated by the director of the theatre troupe, and having no-one to turn to at home, Emiko finds herself increasingly dependent on the surrogate father figure of Masao who is happy enough to play along with the ruse so long as it is just that.

Through their strange paternal bond, Emiko and Masao each reach a point of self identification, figuring out who it is they really are whilst facing the various things they had been afraid to face alone. Lamenting missed opportunities while celebrating second chances, The Name makes the case for authenticity as a path to happiness in a world which often demands its opposite. Melancholy but gently optimistic, Akihiro Toda’s peaceful drama is a heartwarming tale of the power of unexpected connection and the importance of accepting oneself in order to move into a more positive future.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.