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 Led by libertine and (as yet) unpublished poet Tetsu Nakahama (Masahiro Higashide), the Guillotines are more romantic bandits with high ideals than serious revolutionaries.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

The Limit of Sleeping Beauty (リミット・オブ・スリーピング・ビューティー, Ken Ninomiya, 2017)

the limit of sleeping beauty posterCan you escape the past by evading it? The heroine of Ken Ninomiya’s The Limit of Sleeping Beauty (リミット・オブ・スリーピング・ビューティー) does her best to find out as she approaches the point at which she can no longer bear the weight of all her sorrows. A rising star of the Japanese indie scene, Ken Ninomiya had some minor festival exposure with his first film, post-apocalyptic cyberpunk drama Slum-polis, back in 2015 before making a complete about turn in releasing a terse mockumentary about a resilient actor hammering on the door of Japanese show business. Sleeping Beauty was, apparently, originally conceived as a mid-length picture before producers suggested expanding it into a full length feature and in many ways marries the twin concerns of Ninomiya’s earlier films in its high concept examination of a fracturing psyche unable to let the past go and move on from trauma and disappointment.

At 19, Aki (Yuki Sakurai) ran away from a bad family situation and ended up in Tokyo with the hope of becoming an actress. With nowhere else to go she wandered into a random bar which is where she met the love of her life, Kaito (Issey Takahashi) – a melancholy photographer and owner of cabaret club Aurora. Kaito takes her in and she begins working at Aurora as a magician’s assistant but ten years pass and, as a TV presenter later put it, it’s unheard of for a Japanese actress to make it in her 30s.

Her mind fracturing, Aki is often accompanied by “Butch” (Nino Furuhata), a strange clown with a scary white face who appears alternately supportive and enabling. Complaining that she feels unstuck in time, Butch reminds her that the idea of time as linear flow is a misconception and that all moments are indeed one moment which is one reason Aki never quite knows “when” she is. Accepting this fact she asks to be taken to the time at which she was happiest, only to be told that emotional time is not necessarily in sync with one’s perception of temporality. Nevertheless, her mind flies back to her first meeting with Kaito who we later surmise is no longer in her life but continues to define it all the same.

The picture we get of Aki is of a woman attempting to bury herself and her disappointments by revelling in a pleasant memory and then using it as raw material to read herself into an idealised version of her current life only one which is still marred by the tragedy of losing Kaito. Ninomiya opens with an orgy in dingy sex club where everyone is wearing creepy carnival masks and the older Aki is sporting a nasty bruise on her chin. The bruise, we later discover, was earned in a nasty encounter with a lascivious producer engineered by a soulless manager who promised her a career but in effect sold her to a man who assaulted and humiliated her. This final humiliation is only one of many acts of degradation that Aki suffers in her quest to make it as an actress – one of only two things Kaito urged her to do before disappearing from her life forever.

Unable to cope with the weight of lost love, defeated dreams, and a wasted youth Aki’s mind splinters into fragments, creating the strange entity known as Butch whom she seems to want to get rid of but cannot bear to be without. Aki’s quest is one of reintegration in which she must find the strength to put herself back together again and finally set light to the past, waking up from her self imposed slumber.

Kaito wants her to know the world is still wonderful, but his message seems curiously perverse considering his final course of action and Aki’s continuing descent into a spiral of depression, exploitation, and mental instability. Fantasy and reality remain hopelessly blurred, only gradually separating and becoming distinct as Aki begins to put herself back together. Ninomiya improves on Slum-Polis with similarly detailed production design and world building but occasionally allows his taste for music video aesthetics to slide into the indulgent with the success of such sequences depending on the viewer’s taste for the overused main titles song, Hummingbird by Kyla La Grange. Nevertheless there’s no disputing Ninomiya’s ambition and originality even if there is something unsettling in his urgency to inhabit the world he seems to be critiquing.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Breath of Rokkasho (息衝く, Bunyo Kimura, 2017)

Breath of Rokkasho posterIndividual desire versus responsibility to the collective is something of a major theme in Japanese cinema. The fallible ideologue at the centre of Breath of Rokkasho (息衝く, Ikizuku) believes individualism is the key to world happiness, implying that a collection of fulfilled individuals would amount to a fulfilled society, but then again his logic is perhaps hard to follow when he cares so little for other people’s freedom. Taking place in the post-Fukushima world, Rokkasho wants to extend this idea through examining the complexity of the anti-nuclear movement and the political forces which advocate for it while ordinary people largely sit back in silent disapproval. The ideal society, if there even is such a thing, will probably not be built by those in power but by those who manage shake off the problematic legacy of the past in order to embrace their “individual” wills but with the collective good in mind.

Norio (Shigeki Yanagisawa), Yasuyuki (Ryuta Furuya), and Yoshi (Nana Nagao) were raised in a politicised Buddhist cult, The Seed Association, which has a strong interest in ecological affairs and therefore the anti-nuclear movement. Each lacking fatherly input, the three youngsters fell under the spell of the cult’s most prominent member, Mr. M (Satoru Jitsunashi). Mr. M however abruptly upped and left them, abandoned without hope or answers. 20 years later, Norio is a civil servant also working for the Seed Association on political campaigns while Yasuyuki has become the new golden boy whom many tout as the natural successor to Mr. M. Yoshi left the sect at a much younger age and is now a single mother in the middle of what seems to be a fairly messy divorce.

Looking up at the Tanashi Tower (also known as Sky Tower West Tokyo) – a “state of the art” radio tower completed in 1989 midway through a period of unprecedented economic prosperity and named after the town which used to stand here the name of which literally means “no rice”, the three kids ask Mr. M if it’s possible to see the Nighthawk Star from down below. He tells them he doesn’t know, but they can look for it together. Mr. M did not help them, he disappeared and left them with only more questions and an even shakier relationship with their familial pasts. Each badly let down by parental figures who either abandoned their families to join the cult out of nuclear fear, committed suicide, or were simply distant and neglectful, neither Norio, Yasuyuki, or Yoshi has been able to step into the adult world with any degree of confidence or faith in its teachings.

Only by confronting their difficult pasts can the trio begin to unblock their individual paths. A visit to the long absent Mr. M who has apparently embraced full individualism as a hermit farmer who dresses in a comical baby chick’s costume complete with squeaky claw-shaped slippers, begins to show them that their faith in his teachings may have been misplaced. Mr. M claims that the human race is not yet strong enough to live only by thinking of its own happiness, something that he feels would bring the greatest happiness to all mankind. Refusing to recognise the “selfishness” of his philosophy, Mr. M has withdrawn from society and made himself the centre of a happy nation of one.

Parental betrayal becomes a major theme, eventually extending to the paternity of the state in its repeated failures to protect and care for its children. The English title of the film references the Rokkasho nuclear reprocessing facility which has become an ongoing scandal in its 20-year series of construction delays with 23 postponements issued since its original 1997 projected date for completion. Norio, the melancholy civil servant, hails from the town himself – in fact his mother took him away from it precisely because she feared a nuclear disaster. Yet The Seed Association, or anyone else for that matter, has not been able to solve the nuclear issue even in the post-Fukushima era. Engaged in the business of “politics” the sect’s intentions have become blurred as they contemplate their survival in an ever shrinking society, subject to the same political games of manipulation and backbiting as any other party. Gradually disillusioned with the cult’s hypocrisy and didacticism, Norio considers forging his own path – something which sets him at odds with Yasuyuki whose faith is also shaken only he’s invested far too much to allow himself to acknowledge it.

The Japanese title, by contrast, simply means to gasp for air. Trapped fast in society filled with corrupt, conflicting values each of the three struggles to find a foothold for themselves as they flounder wildly without guidance or aim. Yet in being forced to confront themselves and their pasts there is a movement towards progress, or at least a strong desire to find it. They, like their nation, have been betrayed and struggled to deal with their betrayal, but have managed to find their own essential truth even so and along with it the ability breathe deeply even when the air is thickening.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Ambiguous Places (うろんなところ, Akira Ikeda, 2017)

Ambiguous places posterThe world is quite a strange place at the best of times, but for a small collection of people living in between some Ambiguous Places (うろんなところ, Uronna Tokoro) everything seems pretty much normal. Akira Ikeda whose Anatomy of a Paperclip won a Tiger Award at International Film Festival Rotterdam, returns with another surreal tale inspired by the land of dreams. 

Konoko (lit. “this girl”) washes up on a beach trapped in a net and tries to sing but the other people on the beach tell her to stop, because she’s rubbish. Konoko’s other problem is that she’s got a bug stuck in her hair and will need to find a barber to take it out. Travelling with a man whom a strange lady looking for “nuts” on a beach assures her is her dad, Konoko wanders off to look for a hairdresser only to sell her “dad” to a couple of near silent dango makers and then discover that the only barber’s in town is actually a soba shop (which serves udon) and she needs to go the pharmacy only the pharmacist is out at the moment because he had to get some gloves made in celebration of his wife’s pregnancy…

Ambiguous Places is actually a cyclical collection of three stories running more or less concurrently in which the same collection of strange people reappear in different stages of their own adventures. Konoko’s “Meeting Nyoraga” segues into the pharmacist’s odyssey of glove making and forced marriage “Celebrate with Gloves”, and that in turn leads into “Get My Hair Washed” which pops out of the pharmacist’s dream about a girl with foamy hair and features a quest to rid one’s home of scary blue ghosts only to end with everyone sitting down and having dinner together instead.

To begin with everything seems very strange but like the best of dreams it eventually starts to make sense and though there is more than a little violence and hostility, broadly everyone seems to accept things just the way they are. Still, from our point of view this is all terribly surreal. At one point the pharmacist, who has just spent ages having gloves knitted around his hands in a bizarre ritual encounters the man who will later own the dango shop just as he’s carting his wife around covered by a sheet and sitting in a wheel barrow filled with vegetables. The man explains that this is his people’s way of celebrating. The pharmacist looks him dead in the eye and remarks “strange custom”. Well, quite. Mozart’s The Magic Flute also plays a large role in the proceedings in somewhat mangled German with bits of Japanese creeping in until a young lady is forced to have a go after criticising Konoko’s singing and finds she is able to sing the Queen of the Night aria complete with coloratura almost faultlessly.

The atmosphere is indeed dreamlike as the various tales weave in and out of each other with a kind of surreal logic that has its own internal consistency even if it’s quite hard to pin down. Absurd in the extreme, Ikeda opts for deadpan delivery that adds to the bizarre humour and ethereal quality of the strange “ambiguous places” which seem to exist in this odd little seaside town. Yet also like dreams the deeper meaning (if there is any) is hard to discern. Nevertheless, even if it is all random and essentially meaningless, Ambiguous Places is unexpectedly warm and filled with enough zany humour to keep things ticking along even when wondering if one needs to be afraid of the postman or if Nyoraga is really as dangerous as they say…


Streamed via Festival Scope as part of their International Film Festival Rotterdam tie-up.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sweating the Small Stuff (枝葉のこと, Ryutaro Ninomiya, 2017)

Sweating the Small StuffAs portraits of stagnation go, Japanese indie is no stranger though few have found a protagonist as passive as the hero of Ryutaro Ninomiya’s Sweating the Small Stuff (枝葉のこと, Edaha no Koto). Played by the director himself and sharing his name, Ryutaro is a man who barely speaks and has long since given up the illusion that anything that might be said could be of real consequence. Like most of the men in his run down town he has no dreams or ambitions, barely tolerates those who might regard him as a friend, and finds his only refuge in the pages of a book. A chance phone call produces a brief change in his routine but perhaps not enough to shake him from his committed course of listlessness.

At 27, Ryutaro lives alone in a modest, messy apartment filled with empty beer cans, cigarette butts, and piles of books. He has a dead end job at a moribund garage and spends his breaks avoiding his co-workers whom he seems to find annoying. Receiving a phone call from a childhood friend, Ryutaro informs his drunken boss that he needs to leave early before going home to eat noodles, read, and wait to be picked up. His friend, Yusuke, takes him to see his mother, Ryuko, who has been ill with hepatitis C for some years during which time Ryutaro has avoided seeing her despite having been close to her following the death of his own mother when he was just a child.

Ryutaro is a sullen sort of man, almost vibrating with an internalised rage which is only calmed at home with his books. Conversations with his friend Yusuke and later with Ryuko reveal that Ryutaro once had literary aspirations himself, even placing well in competitions, but has more or less given up writing. Yusuke also wanted to be an artist but has abandoned his dreams for a regular salaryman life, as has Yusuke’s brother Satoshi who used to bleach his hair and play in a band. Ryutaro’s boss seems to be among the few who has yet to definitively give up, planning to leave the garage to take over an interiors company owned by a friend of his mother’s who has no heirs to inherit it. Ryutaro’s boss has mentioned similar schemes before and they’ve always fallen through, but he thinks this time will be different. Ryutaro, in contrast, seems to have abandoned any idea of forward motion, refusing to pursue his literary goals, a more stable career, or relationships with friends and lovers in favour of whiling the time away inconsequentially.

Having lost his mother at a young age and then watched his step-mother battle a serious illness which she seems to have recovered from, Ryutaro perhaps has reasons to be wary of forming deep attachments. Only once does his stony facade crack, during a private conversation with Ryuko in which he tells her that sometimes he cheers himself up by remembering that there must be people in a much worse place than he is. Yet Ryutaro is not an unkind man, much of the little he does say is offered quietly in kindness such as his defence of Ryuko’s sometimes absent minded husband, but what he can’t stand is babble and insincerity. Pushed into an unwanted, vacuous conversation with a potential girlfriend he quips that he likes his cheap hairdressers because they get it done without talking before becoming overwhelmed and cruelly laying into the chatty woman with a lengthy rant about the utter pointlessness of her one-sided loquacity. Failing to realise the depth to which he’s hurt her, Ryutaro goes back to the bar where she works to try and see her again only to be rebuffed.

A similar event occurs in another bar when his boss makes a joke about his seeming blankness. Twice Ryutaro gets himself into fights and twice he refuses to defend himself, remaining passive as blows rain down on him. Trying to shut everything out, Ryutaro drinks heavily, declines invitations, and stays at home alone but Ryuko’s illness has forced him to re-emerge, to a degree at least, into the world. Caught in a state of permanent anxiety, Ryutaro finds himself paying repeated visits to Ryuko before finally attempting to talk with his equally detached father who appears to suffer from many of the same problems as Ryutaro himself.

Inspired by true events, Sweating the Small Stuff is both a picture and mild rebuke of aimless youth and of a generation which has collectively decided that everything is meaningless and devoid of purpose. In an odd way, Ryutaro, in his inertia, may be the last man standing, still resentfully clinging on to an idea of real meaning which is defined by its own absence. Ryutaro’s tragedy is that he wants more out of life than there perhaps is to be found and remains frustrated among all those content to waste their time in idle pursuits or surrender themselves to a life of respectable drudgery and ordinary happiness but there are perhaps brief flickers of connection to found even within his ever more disconnected world.


Currently available to stream via Festival Scope as part of their Locarno Film Festival selection.

Original trailer (dialogue free, no subtitles for captions)