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 Led by libertine and (as yet) unpublished poet Tetsu Nakahama (Masahiro Higashide), the Guillotines are more romantic bandits with high ideals than serious revolutionaries.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

The Lowlife (最低, Takahisa Zeze, 2017)

The Lowlife 2017In terms of the mainstream cinema industry, the AV (“adult video”) world is viewed with suspicion and distain. AV is where unlucky women end up after having the misfortune to encounter unscrupulous yakuza or be born to feckless parents whose debts they are forced to pay with their bodies. However, mainstream cinema perhaps has a reason to demonise its rival on top of reflecting persistent social stigmas relating to the expression of sexuality. Takahisa Zeze began his career in “pink film”, which is to say softcore pornography, and casts a non-judgemental eye over the modern hardcore porn scene in The Lowlife (最低, Saitei), adapting a novel by AV actress and gravure model Mana Sakura which explores the lives of three women who each have been impacted by the industry.

The first two of our heroines – college dropout Ayano (Kokone Sasaki), and melancholy housewife Miho (Ayano Moriguchi), have made a free choice to enter the AV industry mostly out of loneliness and insecurity. Ayano, who claims to be the only “ugly” one among her many sisters, is convinced to take part in a porn shoot by an unscrupulous boyfriend but finds herself reassured in being adored by the camera and appreciated on set, if only briefly. Miho, meanwhile, is trapped in an unsatisfying marriage to a man who has begun sleeping in his study and continually puts off the discussion of starting a family despite Miho’s intense desire to become a mother. Checking on her husband one morning she is dismayed to find a porn DVD in the open tray of his laptop which feels like a double betrayal in that he has obviously not been “working” all night and has avoided intimacy with her while finding release somewhere else. Irritated, Miho takes the extreme decision of becoming a porn star herself as a strange kind of revenge and motion towards personal fulfilment.

Our third heroine, Ayako (Aina Yamada), however, is looking at the same problem from a different angle in that she is daughter of a single-mother who had previously worked in the porn industry before returning home to her own single-mother to start again and raise her daughter. Takako (Saki Takaoka) is a difficult, flighty woman who still likes to live the high life drinking with random guys and rolling in late or sometimes not at all to the constant worry of her anxious daughter. A gifted artist, Ayako is a shy, gloomy girl who finds it hard to connect with her peers and resents her mother for her unconventional lifestyle. Her problems intensify when she wins a prominent art prize and irritates a classmate who seems to be stalking her causing him to spread the rumour of Takako’s past all over the school.

Social stigma is indeed one of the main problems each of the women face. Ayano, who seems to be otherwise happy enough with her life AV, gets an unexpected visit from her concerned mother and scornful sister when someone presumably spots her in a video and decides to have a word. As Ayano points out to her annoyingly judgemental sister, that means whoever told them just outed themselves as an AV-watcher so perhaps she should ask her boyfriend about that before making sarky comments. Nevertheless, nobody really says anything about the men who consume pornography, only about the “immoral” women who star in them. Ayano’s mother Izumi (Makiko Watanabe) blames herself, complaining that Ayano was the only one of her daughters she never quite bonded with, by turns angry with her for “shaming” the family and concerned that she has “thrown her life away” by becoming forever tainted with the stigma of having been involved in the sex industry.

Corrupted maternity becomes a somewhat uncomfortable theme as each of the women assesses their relationships with other women in the context of the traditional family. Having given up work and become a housewife as society expects, Miho has done everything right but is intensely unhappy because her husband will not move to the next step by starting a family. At 35, she feels her life stagnating, that everything is already settled and nothing will change from now until the time she dies. Neglected by a husband who seems to have lost interest in her as a woman as well as in their shared endeavour of building a home, she finds herself drawn to AV as a path to sexual fulfilment which isn’t really infidelity while also subverting her image of superficial perfection and embracing another identity outside of the home. She remains, however, conflicted as she gazes jealously at a happy family out on holiday at the pleasant mountain lodge where they’ll shoot the movie away from prying eyes. Her involvement in AV is, in a way, also an act of self harm as she punishes herself for her inability to become a mother, while also getting back at her disinterested husband.

Even so, Zeze is careful to frame the AV industry in a positive light. On arrival at the agency, Miho is greeted by an extremely sensitive and sympathetic manager who does his best to ease her concerns while making her feel safe at her most vulnerable. Having felt so neglected and lonely at home, the AV world provides her with a place that she is appreciated, desired as a woman and treated like a star. Similarly, Ayano who had believed herself “ugly” and unlovable begins to gain confidence in herself thanks to being appreciated by the camera, eventually striking up a relationship with a nice guy journalist in a bar which seems like it might develop into something more. While some might argue that the industry is merely exploiting feminine insecurities, it cannot be denied that both women find in it a path towards self acceptance and actualisation.

Despite the fiercely non-judgemental tone, a late plot twist further casts Miho’s transgression as a fall rather than a rise while an eventual connection with Ayako further deepens the maternal subtext as she completes the circle by mothering the lost young woman trying to come to terms with her atypical family situation. Ayako’s grandmother too seems to prescribe motherhood as the answer to all life’s mysteries even if the answer is often that they can’t be solved and all that remains is the urgency of living. Zeze’s depiction of the porn industry might be a rosy one glossing over the seamier side in favour of presenting a world built on empowerment rather than exploitation, but its infinitely sympathetic eye makes plain that porn is just a job like any other and the women who work in it do not deserve the scorn that society often chooses to heap on them.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

My Friend “A” (友罪, Takahisa Zeze, 2018)

My Friend A posterThe Japanese justice system is founded on the idea of confession and atonement, that if you admit your crime and show remorse you will be forgiven. The truth, however, is much more complex and those whose lives have been tainted by transgression are often rejected by a still unforgiving society. Director Takahisa Zeze describes his adaptation of Gaku Yakumaru’s novel My Friend “A” (友罪, Yuzai) as a picture of the world he longs to see at the end of the Heisei era, one which is less judgemental and more compassionate where the bonds between people can perhaps overcome the traumatic past.

In the present day, two very different men – failed journalist Masuda (Toma Ikuta) and the sullen and mysterious Suzuki (Eita), are inducted as probationary workers at a small factory. Suzuki’s determination to keep himself to himself does not endear him to the other workers who become convinced that he is hiding something from them. Suzuki is indeed hiding something, though his reasons for avoiding human contact are various and complex. When a young child is found murdered nearby in a method which echoes a notorious killing from 17 years previously, Masuda is contacted by an old colleague (Mizuki Yamamoto) investigating the case and begins to wonder if the secret Suzuki seems to be burdened by might have something to do with one crime or both.

In actuality, Masuda does not seem to believe that Suzuki is involved with the recent killing even if he comes to the conclusion that he is almost certainly the teenager convicted of the earlier crime. Nevertheless, he develops an awkward “friendship” with him which is partly exploitative as he ponders writing an exposé on the injustice that allows someone who committed such heinous acts, even in childhood, to start again with a new identity. “Injustice” becomes a persistent theme as seen in the melancholy tale of taxi driver Yamauchi (Koichi Sato) who is carrying the heavy burden of being the father of a son (Hoshi Ishida) who killed three children as a joy riding delinquent. Hounded by one parent, and accidentally harassing the others through his relentless attempts to apologise for his son’s transgression, Yamauchi has ruined his family through his own need for personal atonement. Having divorced his wife and lost touch with his son, he is enraged to learn that he plans to marry and will soon be a father. Even if his wife-to-be knows of his past and accepts it, Yamauchi believes his son has lost the right to live as other people live and finds it extraordinarily offensive that a man who took the lives of children would have a child of his own.

Yamauchi seems to want to put his family back together but only succeeds in tearing it apart. Corrupted families loom large from the mysterious photograph of the smiling boy surrounded by the scratched out faces of his parents and sibling found among Suzuki’s belongings, to the reform school boy taunted with the accusation that he might not have turned to drugs if only his parents had loved him more. Suzuki fixates on his reform school teacher Shiraishi (Yasuko Tomita), but she in turn has neglected her own daughter in her fierce desire to save the souls of these violent young men many of whom have become the way they are because they believe that they are worthless and no one cares about them. Meanwhile, Miyoko (Kaho) – a young woman drawn to Suzuki’s silent solidarity, struggles to escape her own traumatic past partly because she was shamed in front of her family who then were also shamed by her inescapable transgression.

Unlike Suzuki, Miyoko has committed no crime but is haunted just the same. As is Masuda though his guilt is real enough if of a more spiritual kind as he struggles to accept his role in the death of a friend who committed suicide when they were just children. Then again, Masuda’s struggle, like Yamauchi’s, is perhaps a solipsistic one in which what he is really mourning is not his friend but the vision of his idealised self. On visiting his late friend’s mother, Masuda bristles when she talks about his journalistic career and her hope that he is still “strong and just” like the teenage boy she believes stood alongside her lonely son when the truth is that he abandoned his friend when he needed him most because he was too cowardly to risk becoming a target himself. Despite his high ideals, Masuda had been working at a scandal rag and his only real piece of ethical journalism was a confessional about the destructive effects of high school bullying. He remains conflicted in his friendship with Suzuki not quite because he fears his dark past but because he fears his own moral cowardice – something he is reminded of when a housemate points out that no-one likes Suzuki and that if Masuda sides with him, no one will like him either. 

The question that is asked is whether discovering someone’s dark secret necessarily changes who they are now and if it is ever really possible for those who have in some way transgressed to return to society. As Suzuki puts it to Masuda in reflecting on their unavoidable commonality, they’re each men who rarely unpack their suitcases, always on the run from an unforgiving present. Yet there is perhaps hope despite Masuda’s ongoing diffidence in his eventual (self) confession and belated solidarity with a man he later recognises as a “friend” in acknowledgement of the unconditional bonds of genuine friendship.


My Friend “A” was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The 8-Year Engagement (8年越しの花嫁 奇跡の実話, Takahisa Zeze, 2017)

8-year bride posterRomantic melodrama has long been a staple of Japanese cinema which seems to revel in stories of impossible love. The short lived boom in “jun-ai” or “pure love” romances which blossomed at the beginning of the century may have petered out gracefully after plundering every terminal or debilitating illness for traces of heartbreaking tragedy, but the genre has never quite gone away and is unlikely ever to do so. Takahisa Zeze’s The 8-Year Engagement (8年越しの花嫁 奇跡の実話, 8-nengoshi no Hanayome: Kiseki no Jitsuwa) is, however, a slightly different case in that it is inspired by a true story which became something of a hot topic in the relatively recent past. Romantic in a grand, old fashioned sense, the film shifts away from the melodrama of misery while praising the power of perseverance and the enduring potency of true love in bringing about unexpected miracles.

In 2006, shy and retiring car mechanic Hisashi (Takeru Satoh) tries and fails to get out of a party his chatty colleague is arranging for that very evening. Sullen and resentful at having been roped into a social occasion he was not mentally prepared for, Hisashi says barely anything and then manages to free himself when the others decide to go for karaoke. Just as he’s walking off mildly regretful, one of the other partygoers, Mai (Tao Tsuchiya), comes back to harangue him about his “attitude”. Hisashi explains that he’s sorry but he’s not very good at this sort of thing anyway and the truth is he wanted to go home because he’s got a killer stomach ache which being forced to eat fatty meat and down sake out of politeness has done nothing to help. Mai approves of this excuse, and even loops back after leaving to meet the others at the karaoke to hand him a heat pack she had in her bag in the hope that it might help with the stomach trouble. The pair start dating, become wildly happy, and get engaged. Three months before the wedding, Mai is struck down by a rare illness and winds up in a coma.

The romance itself is tucked up neatly into the first half hour or so and mostly conforms to genre norms – he is shy and extremely sensitive, she is extroverted and extremely kind. The love story proceeds smoothly, though there are signs of trouble to come in Mai’s increasing clumsiness followed by headaches which lead to memory loss and finally a painful hallucinogenic episode resulting in prolonged hospitalisation. Zeze wisely scales back on medical detail and focuses on Hisashi’s devotion and unwavering belief that Mai will one day open her eyes and return to him. Rather than cancel the wedding date, Hisashi decides to keep it open in the hope that Mai will be well enough to attend before booking the same date, the date of their first meeting, in every subsequent year just in case she should wake up and regret missing out on her dream wedding.

As the condition is so rare, no one is sure what the prognosis will be though the doctors admit there is a strong possibility Mai may never awaken or that if she does there may well be extensive brain damage and irreparable memory loss in addition to life long medical needs. Hisashi puts his life on hold and comes to the hospital every day, making short video messages he sends to Mai’s phone so she can catch up on what she’s missed when she wakes up. His devotion does however begin to worry Mai’s doting parents (Hiroko Yakushimaru & Tetta Sugimoto) who eventually decide to explain to him that as he’s “not family” there’s no need for him to feel obliged to stick around. They do this not because they’re territorial over their daughter’s care, or that they don’t like Hisashi, they simply worry that he’s going to waste his life waiting for a woman who will never wake up. As he’s still young and has a chance to start again, they try to push him away in the harshest way possible – through cool politeness, but are secretly pleased when he refuses to be pushed.

People making other people’s decisions for them as a means of reducing their suffering becomes a recurrent theme. Rather than say what they mean, kindhearted people say the things which they believe are for the best and will end someone else’s suffering through a moment of intense pain. Everyone is so keen to spare everyone else’s feelings, that they perhaps suffer themselves when there is no need to. Hisashi’s supportive boss remembers a rather odd comment he made during his interview – after replying that he enjoyed fixing things when asked what made him apply for the job, Hisashi’s boss asked him what he thought about while he did it to which he replied “love”. Love does it seems fix everything, at least when coupled with undying devotion and a refusal give up even when things look grim. A romantic melodrama with a positive ending The 8-year Engagement is a happy tearjerker in which love really does conquer all despite seemingly unsurmountable odds.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)