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 Led by libertine and (as yet) unpublished poet Tetsu Nakahama (Masahiro Higashide), the Guillotines are more romantic bandits with high ideals than serious revolutionaries.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

A Crimson Star (真っ赤な星, Aya Igashi, 2018)

A Crimson Star posterFalling in love is, perhaps, like standing too close to the sun and for the young heroine of Aya Igashi’s debut feature A Crimson Star (真っ赤な星, Makkana Hoshi), it means nothing unless it burns. Set in the otherwise serene environment of a rural Japanese summer, full of blue skies and green fields bursting with life, A Crimson Star is the story of two ostensibly very different women in very different places who nevertheless develop an essential and inescapable bond in their shared sense of loneliness and isolation, but their relationship is also a problematic one in which the familial and the romantic have become inextricably linked.

14-year-old Yo (Miku Komatsu), undergoing a lengthy period of hospitalisation for an undisclosed illness, develops an intense fondness for her kindly nurse, Yayoi (Yuki Sakurai). On her discharge, however, Yo is stunned to learn that Yayoi has abruptly resigned and all but disappeared. Meanwhile, Yo’s family life continues to deteriorate. Her disinterested mother has got a new boyfriend who is often drunk and violent. In order to escape him, Yo takes a trip to the corner shop and makes a surprising discovery in a street of parked cars which turns out to be (as yet unknown to the the naive Yo) the secluded byroad used for secret assignations seeing as this is such a one horse little town that there isn’t even a love hotel. Yayoi has become an embittered sex worker and her lonely degradation breaks Yo’s heart. When her mother’s boyfriend eventually begins molesting her, it’s to Yayoi that Yo turns looking for care and support from a woman who had nursed her but is no longer a nurse.

The “crimson star” of the title most obviously refers to the wings of the paraglider gazed at so often by the earthbound Yo, but it is also echoed in the tiny scars and wounds which define the relationship between the two women. In the first scene of the film, the hospitalised Yo has a prominent bruise on her foot apparently caused by Yayoi nicking a vein when taking a blood sample. Even so, Yo leans in tell her that she is her favourite nurse – words which bring tears to Yayoi’s eyes and perhaps precipitate her decision to leave the hospital. For Yo, who is emotionally neglected by her mother and has never known true care and affection, the bruise becomes an odd kind of proof of love which she has come to associate with pain. Later, Yo spots an odd mark on Yayoi’s neck – she is of course too young to know what it is. Yayoi shows her, literally, by biting her slightly below the shoulder and creating another kind of “crimson star”.

Yo’s early attraction to the 27-year-old Yayoi has a distinctly maternal quality in which she looks for the same kind of compassionate care she experienced in hospital and which her mother refuses to give her. There is also, however, a nascent sexual attraction which provokes intense jealousy as Yo attempts to get closer to Yayoi but finds herself unable to achieve the kind of all encompassing love she is seeking. Given Yo’s extreme youth, the relationship is in many ways extremely inappropriate and infinitely confused, a combination of familial, platonic, and romantic longings which appear to be unbreakable but remain unresolved. Yo, almost becoming the thing she wants to find, begins to take care of the depressed, broken Yayoi – tidying the apartment, folding washing, and repairing external signs of damage, while Yayoi becomes care taker rather than care giver presenting her with an opportunity to reexamine her self-destructive tendencies including a dead end relationship with married paraglider Kengo (Katsuya Maiguma).

Kengo becomes a particular point of contention for Yo, not just for reasons of jealousy but because he causes Yayoi to suffer. Early on she spots him on his bike with his small daughter, every inch the doting dad which is, of course, something she never had. Kengo is also a symbol of familial betrayal as he undermines his seemingly happy family by continuing to string Yayoi along on what is, ironically enough, a no strings basis. Family has betrayed both women who find themselves adrift and alone with no clear anchor except perhaps each other.

Yet what Yo wants is to escape – to soar in the quiet skies high above all, free of earthly constraints like the paraglider she so often sees, but paragliders are crafts built for two and Yo wants to go with Yayoi, strapped together enveloped in a private world into which nothing else may enter. The “crimson star” then becomes the unattainable feeling of closeness and total connection that continues to elude her, furthering her view that love is pain and the pain she feels must be love. Backed by a crimson sky, the future is both hopeful and filled with light, but perhaps also tethered and marked by a melancholy resignation. Beautifully composed, Igarashi’s debut is a raw, often uncomfortable examination of an elemental bond forged between two lonely, damaged women each seeking impossible connection as an escape from a loveless existence.


A Crimson Star made its World Premiere at the 2018 Raindance Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

N@NIMONO (何者, Daisuke Miura, 2016)

Nanimono posterGrowing up is a series of battles in Japan. Exam hell soon gives way to the freedom and liberation of university but students know that their carefree days of youth and discovery will be short lived. Job hunting is done en masse and takes place in the final year of study (or even before). The process of securing a work placement is much the same as deciding on which school to apply to – attending job fairs to meet with representatives, getting hold of brochures, talking to anyone and everyone you know about the various reputations of the big firms, and then figuring out what your best bets are. Many companies run written exams which are then followed by group interviews in which the applicants are made to answer humiliating questions in front of their fellow candidates. What this all amounts to is a gradual erasure of the self in order to become the perfect hire, making the same tired phrases sound interesting in an effort to say all the right things whilst trying not too seem calculating or too bland.

The group at the centre of Daisuke Miura’s adaptation of the Naoki Prize winning novel by Ryo Asai, N@NIMONO (何者, Nanimono, AKA Somebody / Someone), know this better than most. Protagonist Takuto (Takeru Satoh) used to be interested in theatre but has abandoned his dreams of the stage for the mainstream route into company life while his friend Kotaro (Masaki Suda) has played his last gig as the lead singer of a rock band, died his hair black again, and got a smart haircut in preparation for interviews. The boys are still good friends and roommates despite the fact that Takuto has long been carrying a torch for Kotaro’s former girlfriend, Mizuki (Kasumi Arimura), who has just returned from studying abroad. Mizuki is good friends with another girl, Rica (Fumi Nikaido), who happens to live upstairs from the boys and suggests that the four of them all get together to compare notes on the job hunting process. Rica lives with her boyfriend (still somewhat unusual in Japan), Takayoshi (Masaki Okada), who is working as a freelance journalist and is disdainful of the others’ passage into the regular workaday world but later tries to get into it himself.

There is a kind of sadness involved in this process, even if no one seriously thinks about fighting back. Everyone wants to get their foot onto that corporate ladder to become “someone”, at least in the eyes of society. There are a lot of rungs on the ladder to success, and if you miss your footing it’s near impossible to get it back – you’ll wind up one of the many crowded round the bottom staring up at the top even if you don’t want to admit it. University is the last time time there is real scope for indulging one’s personality before the corporate life takes hold – thus Takuto and Kotaro both accept that their artistic pursuits have to go in their quest for a regular middle-class life even if they inwardly struggle with their decisions to “sell-out”.

Takayoshi thinks of himself as above all this. He asks himself what all of this is for, why people put themselves through this humiliating ritual just to be locked into a nine to five that makes them miserable and turns them into soulless drones. There’s an obvious answer to that, and Takayoshi’s refusal to take it into account borders on the offensive, as does his often patronising attitude to those actively engaged in the job hunting process, but his hypocrisy is eventually brought home to him when he turns down a project to work with another artist because he thinks their work isn’t good enough. Maybe there’s courage in just putting something of yourself out there, even if it isn’t very good, rather than sitting at home looking down on everything and critiquing everyone else’s life choices whilst getting nothing done yourself.

It’s this conflict between interior and exterior life in which N@NIMONO is most interested. Main character Takuto begins as the everyman, depressed and stressed by his job hunting odyssey but aloof isolationism soon reveals itself as a kind of cowardice and self-involvement born of insecurity as he takes to a “secret” Twitter account for acerbic comments on his friends’ lives, sarcastically taking cruel potshots safe in the knowledge of his anonymity. Takuto’s entire concept of himself is a construction as his eventual descent into abstraction shows us in recasting his interaction with his friends as an avant-garde theatre show in which he finally begins to see the various ways his resentment of others is really just a way of expressing dissatisfaction with himself. This inability to fully integrate his own personality is offered as the final reason he hasn’t managed to find employment – his insincerity marks him out as a poor prospect. Takuto’s final realisation that he is unable to successfully answer the standard interview question “define your own personality in under one minute” for the perfectly sensible reason that the task is impossible kickstarts his own journey to a more complete life, even if it doesn’t do much to help the countless other “someones” out there hammered into a standard sized holes as mere cogs in the great social machine.


N@NIMONO seems to have been screened under the English titles of both “Somebody” and “Someone” but “N@NIMONO” is the one that features on the title card of the English subtitled Hong Kong blu-ray.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

August in Tokyo (愛の小さな歴史, Ryutaro Nakagawa, 2015)

august in Tokyo posterFollowing on from the dark series of coming of age tales in Plastic Love Story, Ryutaro Nakagawa continues to examine his central themes of unusual connections, lingering effects of past trauma, and the dark side of familial dysfunction in the cheerfully titled August in Tokyo (愛の小さな歴史, Ai no Chiisana Rekishi). Beginning with a framing sequence involving suicide and depression, Nakagawa spins back for a no happier look at two very different people facing much the same problems as they attempt to reconnect with family members, pursue doomed romances, and generally fail to move forward even though they each strive to put the past behind them. Yet there is hope here as the framing sequence proves in its insistence that loss is an inevitable part of life but that the end of one relationship does not mean no others should start.

A young girl, Natusmi (Asaka Nakamura), receives a phone call from the police telling her that her best friend has committed suicide. Left reeling, Natsumi also attempts to kill herself but is saved by a young man with whom she later develops a friendship after bonding over their shared loss in each having lost someone close to them who died by their own hands.

Their story gives way to that of another man and woman who don’t know each other but are living very similar lives in close geographical proximity. Natuski (Eriko Nakamura), having left a job at a book shop following a failed affair, has a part-time job delivering bento. Approached one day by a young man (Sosuke Ikematsu) who tells her that her estranged father (Ken Mitsuishi) is in a bad way, Natsuki decides the best form of revenge might be to move in and look after him. Meanwhile, Natsuo (Takashi Okito) is a petty gangster becoming disillusioned with his life of senseless unpleasantness. Reencountering his younger sister Asuka (Manami Takahashi), Natsuo decides to reassume his familial responsibilities by “saving” her from her dead end life as a drug addicted casual sex worker.

Abandonment and familial breakdown are the threads which bind the stories of Natsuki and Natso together. Living out their eerily similar lives, they each reflect on why it was they were born if their parent(s) did not want them enough to bother looking after them. Natsuki’s memories of her father who left when she was small are not positive. She has a scar on her chest from where he burnt her with a cigarette and still resents him for the drunken beatings he inflicted on her mother who later died when Natsuki was only ten years old. She wonders if her life might have been different if she’d had a normal childhood. A failed a attraction to a middle-class pianist only serves to ram home her sense of insecurity and inadequacy, leaving her to wonder if she can ever escape the cycle of suffering to which her father’s failures seem to have condemned her.

Natsuo and his sister have it harder, each wondering why it was they were born, preferring to think it was all just an unhappy accident of a biological urge rather than the expression of a love they themselves have never felt. At some point Natsuo made the decision to abandon his family, leaving Asuka to deal with it alone. Attempting to care for their abusive father with senile dementia, Asuka’s life was destroyed, leaving her no way to support herself until an ill advised romance led her into the path of drugs and the sex trade. Natsuo wants to put things “right”, but he may be running out of time.

Natsuki and Natsuo struggle, each trying to do the “right” thing but finding themselves conflicted. Natsuki can’t forgive her father for everything he’s put her through. The young man who convinced her to help him, perhaps disconnected himself, describes Natsuki’s father as “like a father” to him – a figure of nobility who stood up for others and was the only man who took him for drinks and spent time with him as a father might. Natsuki says says her only purpose in life is hating her father, yet in the end she can’t. Natsuo’s worries are equally self focussed in his guilt over having abandoned his sister and her subsequent fall into dangerous drug dependency but his late in the day attempts to “save” her and their patronising paternalism often frustrate his essential goal.

Running in parallel these two sad stories are tragedies waiting to happen but, even in their darkness, they hold the potential for salvation. As in the framing sequence, such unexpected connections may be born from sadness but there is happiness to be found if you can find the strength to carry on. Maintaining his familiar aesthetic of naturalism mixed with expressionist dance sequences, Nakagawa’s latest examination of human relationships and contemporary society is bleak but also hopeful, insisting that patch work hearts are the path to a brighter future.


Available in most territories via iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and Google Play.

Trailer (English subtitles/captions)

A Double Life (二重生活 , Yoshiyuki Kishi, 2016)

double-lifeA Double Life (二重生活, Nijyuu Seikatsu ), the debut feature from director Yoshiyuki Kishi adapted from Mariko Koike’s novel, could easily be subtitled “a defence of stalking with indifference”. As a philosophical experiment in itself, it recasts us as the voyeur, watching her watching him, following our oblivious heroine as she becomes increasingly obsessed with the act of observance. Taking into account the constant watchfulness of modern society, A Double Life has some serious questions to ask not only of the nature of existence but of the increasing connectedness and its counterpart of isolation, the disconnect between the image and reality, and how much  the hidden facets of people’s lives define their essential personality.

Tama (Mugi Kadowaki) is an MA philosophy student working on a thesis regarding the nature of existence in contemporary Japan. Discussing her work with her supervisor, Shinohara (Lily Franky), Tama reveals that she was drawn to her subject because she is unable to understand why she herself is alive. Her proposal was largely based on the tried and tested method of a survey but Shinohara is hoping for something more original. Catching sight of a Sophie Calle book on his desk, he suggests that Tama’s project might benefit from examining the life of one subject in depth and so he tasks her with following a random person and observing their daily activities in order to figure out what makes them tick.

Tama is conflicted, but when she catches sight of her neighbour at a book shop she makes an impulsive decision to follow him which will later develop into an all consuming obsession. Ishizaka (Hiroki Hasegawa) is a successful editor at a high profile publishing house with a pretty wife, cute daughter and lovely home just over the way from the apartment Tama lives in with her illustrator and game designer boyfriend, Takuya (Masaki Suda). However, while following Ishizaka to a local coffee shop Tama catches him illicitly meeting another woman. Not quite believing what she sees, Tama’s obsession with her target continues to grow until the fateful day that her cover is finally blown.

Tama, and her supervisor, both regard the exercise as essentially harmless because all Tama is supposed to do is observe. The nature of her experiment means that she must remain unseen so that the subject does not change his or her behaviour but Tama quickly becomes a passive observer to an unpleasant domestic episode when Ishizaka’s wife discovers the affair. Tama is, always, a passive presence. As she says herself, she carries a deep-seated sense of emptiness that prevents her from fully connecting with other people. Her stalking activities, however, reawaken a sense of connectedness that she had been unable to find in her everyday life.

While Tama is watching Ishizaka, she herself is also being watched. Firstly, of course, by us, but also by the busybody landlady whose obsession with the proper way to dispose of rubbish has led to her installing spy cameras to capture the offending tenants on film. Of course, the cameras capture a lot of other stuff too which, when used alongside other forms of evidence, paint a slightly different picture. The old lady is a classic curtain twitcher, albeit one with access to more sophisticated equipment, and looms big brother-like over her tiny domain, the possessor and disseminator of all information. Tama’s rules mean she must not be seen, but someone is always watching, collecting information to be repurposed and repackaged at the convenience of the collector.

Cameras capture images but humans conjure pictures. From the outside, the Ishizakas are the perfect model family – a successful husband, warm and friendly housewife who is quick to get involved in community events, and a lovely, well behaved little daughter. As we find out Ishizaka is not the committed family man which he first seems. After treating all of the women in his life extremely badly, Ishizaka adds Tama to his list after the affair is exposed and his life ruined. Tama was only ever a passive observer whose presence had no effect on the narrative, yet Ishizaka blames his predicament on her rather than address the fact the situation is entirely his own fault. He does, however, have a point when he accuses Tama of exploiting his secrets for her own gain.

Tama’s observations are limited to the public realm and so she’s left with a lot of unknown data making her conclusions less than reliable. The gap between her perception and the reality becomes even more apparent once she begins observing the life of her supervisor, Shinohara. In an elliptical fashion, the film begins with Shinohara’s presumed suicide attempt and for much of the first half we seem him struggle with the grief of his mother’s terminal illness. This again turns out to be not quite as it seems, undermining Tama’s whole research proposal as her conclusions on Shinohara’s reason for living were based on a deliberately constructed scenario.

Ironically enough, Tama’s attempts to connect eventually ruin her own relationship as she finds herself living “a double life” as a vicarious voyeur. Abandoning her sense of self and living through her subjects, Tama begins to connect with the world around her but it’s more overlapping than a true union of souls in which she becomes a passive receptacle for someone else’s drama. Hers is the life of a double, shadowy and incomplete. Take away a man’s life lie and you take away his happiness, so Ibsen told us. Tama would seem to come a similar conclusion, that the essence of life may lie in these petty secrets and projected images. An intriguing philosophical text in itself, A Double Life is an intense look at modern society and all of its various artifices which marks Kishi out as a promising new cinematic voice.


Reviewed at Raindance 2016

Original trailer (English subtitles)