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 Led by libertine and (as yet) unpublished poet Tetsu Nakahama (Masahiro Higashide), the Guillotines are more romantic bandits with high ideals than serious revolutionaries.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 Hungry Lion (飢えたライオン, Takaomi Ogata, 2017)

Hungry lion posterRumour has a strange power. A baseless lie, no matter how innocuous, can quickly derail a life but the power of lie with a tiny grain of, if not truth exactly but circumstantial evidence, can prove ruinous when there are vested interests at play which make belief an attractive prospect. The heroine of Takaomi Ogata’s The Hungry Lion (飢えたライオン, Ueta Lion) finds herself at the centre of such a storm through no fault of her own, becoming a victim not only of her country’s restrictive social codes, tendency towards victim blaming, and reluctance to deal openly with “unpleasant” topics, but also more directly of the latent jealousy lurking in her closest friends which finds a convenient home in someone else’s scandal. Nobody will come to her rescue, her “disgrace” has exiled her from the group and she finds herself abandoned as a lonely a sacrifice to the hungry lion that feeds on social shame.

High school teacher Mr. Hosono is not exactly popular with his students. He is strict with the boys but less so with the girls, as he proves greeting one tardy student who blames a train accident for his late arrival by berating him about his regulation busting necklace while allowing a female student, Hitomi (Urara Matsubayashi), who arrives a couple of minutes later to take her seat unharrassed. Midway through the register, Mr. Hosono is called away and eventually arrested in connection with the viral video all the kids were looking at before he arrived which appears to show him in a compromising position with a student. For one reason or another, a rumour spreads that Hitomi is the girl in the video. She isn’t, but few believe her strenuous denials and her life becomes one of constant strife not only because of the bullying itself, or the injustice of being falsely accused and then disbelieved by those closest to her, but by the way she is made to feel embarrassed and shamed for causing trouble to others even though she herself has done nothing wrong.

A “relationship” between a teacher and a student is never appropriate, and Mr. Hosono has at least been removed from his position at the school, but no one seems very interested in identifying the girl in the video in order to help her, only to spread ruin and rumour. Hitomi is not the girl in the video, but even if she had been there is no support on offer to her as a person who has been abused by someone in a position of power she should have been able to trust, nor are there any measures in place to ensure her academic life will not be unduly damaged by becoming involved in such a traumatic incident. Aware of the rumours, the school accepts Hitomi’s assertion that she is not the girl but still suspends her to avoid “awkwardness” and protect their own reputation. Likewise, her own mother and sister are far from supportive, berating her for bringing shame on the family and creating problems for them in making the family a target rather than standing by her in her ordeal whether she had been the girl or not.

The rumour itself seems to spring from persistent shaming and stigmatisation of atypical families. Hitomi is 18 and she has a boyfriend who a little older. He has some shady friends and likes to push buttons as he does by causing mild embarrassment to Hitomi by taking her into the curtained off “adult” section of the local video store in an attempt to shock her. Nevertheless the pair eventually make their way to a love hotel (where they are not age checked) and he films her in a compromising position. Girls talk and Hitomi’s friends all know about her relationship which is also plastered all over her social media on which she is something of a star. Some of her friends are jealous but also harbour a degree of disapproval and the mere fact that she is already sexually active ties her to the girl in the video and casts her in an “impure” light in the cute and innocent world of high school girls. Similarly, her boyfriend’s estimation of her drops after she consents to sleep with him while his leering friends make lewd comments and regard her as an “easy” girl who has lost the right to refuse their advances.

Ostracised for essentially becoming a “fallen woman”, Hitomi is left entirely alone with no one to turn to for support. Later, authorities are keen to stress that it’s important to speak out if you’re suffering because adults will always help children but like everything else they are just empty words. The school give out a pamphlet on the importance of prudence when using social media, but refuse to accept their responsibility in failing to protect their students. The news meanwhile becomes obsessed with tearing apart Hitomi’s family, laying the blame at their feet, insisting that Hitomi’s downfall is in someway a result of her parents’ divorce even blaming her mother for having the audacity to find a “boyfriend” before her children were fully grown. The image we had of Hitomi is suddenly reversed. No longer is she a “slutty schoolgirl” involved in an illicit relationship with her teacher, but a neglected child damaged beyond repair by “liberal modern society”.

Reputation is what matters, but reputation is easily manipulated and rewritten, muddy even when objective truth is revealed. Ogata shoots in brief vignettes, each severed from the next by a stark black screen which forces us to examine the objectivity of each scene as distinct from the others, assembling our own versions of “objective” truth which are in fact guided by Ogata’s carefully crafted editing. Fake news has an agenda, truth does not, but it’s often much easier to believe the lie especially if the lie benefits us much more than the truth or enables us to feel superior to someone we secretly think needs taking down a peg or two. Society is a hungry lion which feeds on shame, externalised and internalised, as those who find themselves on the wrong sides of a series of social taboos become unwilling sacrifices to its unkind, unforgiving, and unrelenting hunger for suffering.


Screening at New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 30th June, 2.45pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)