The Chrysanthemum and The Guillotine (2018) review

Introduction

While Takahisa Zeze is known as one of the Four Heavenly Kings of Pink, his days of filming pink eiga are long gone. In recent years, Zeze has proven to be able successfully direct commercial movies like 64: part 1 (2016), 64: part 2 (2016) and Strayer’s Chronicle (2015), while keeping himself satisfied with more personal projects like Heaven’s Story (2010). With Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine, Zeze presents his latest personal and independent narrative.    

Review

In 1923, a devastating earthquake hits Tokyo and its surroundings, disrupting the lives of many. In the chaos and paranoia that follows, Koreans and socialists are massacred by vigilante groups and police-officers. In September, the unrest leads to the brutal murder of leading anarchist Sakae Osugi (Toshimitsu Kokido).

One day, in order to escape her abusive environment – i.e. the physical abuse of her husband, Kiku (Mai Kiryu) decides to join the touring Tamaiwa women’s Sumo stable, led by Tamasaburo Iwaki (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) and currently sponsored by Kantaro Sakata (Yohta Kawase).

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Upon hearing the news of Osugi’s death, the poet Tetsu Nakahama (Masahiro Higashide), the leader of The Guillotine Society, promise to avenge his death by murdering an important member of the public sphere. One day, Tetsu, Daijiro (Kanichiro) and some others decide to attend the performance of the Tamaiwa’s sumo stable in the neighbourhood. Initially disappointed by the lack of nudity, Tetsu become fascinated by Kiku and Tamae (Hanae Kan).

Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine, a cinematographical look into Japan’s twenties, succeeds in creating a believable impression of that period, as the three encroaching narrative/thematic points evoke the atmosphere of conflict characteristic of that time in a palpable way. The first thematic element of the narrative concerns the political sentiment of anarchism/socialism, an ideology deemed dangerous and destructive by the government. Secondly, the narrative touches upon the ravage that traditional family structures, if taken in their radicality, can cause. And the third element is the evocation of a lingering nationalistic sentiment – the start of Japan’s nationalistic imperialism. Taken together, these three intersecting thematic elements frame Japanese society as nothing other than a volatile society marked by inequality (e.g. for women, Koreans, and for socialists) and by non-state approved violence (Narra-note 1).

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Be it the sumo-women or our socialists/anarchists, we’re are dealing with people that find themselves at the fringe of society. It is interesting to note that these sumo-women, those oppressed by nationalism or traditional ideals, share, at a fundamental, the same ‘powerless/castrated’ position as the men of the Guillotine Society, who feel oppressed by a political structure already pregnant with nationalism (Narra-note 2).

If the men of the Guillotine Society appear powerless – unable to instigate change, it is because they fail to instigate a revolution or, in other words, they fail to turn their revolutionary talk into true revolutionary action. What does not help either is the fact that beyond their ideals fueling their society (e.g. an equal country for all), a subtle hypocrisy lingers in their anarchistic society – the money for their activism often spend to fund their satisfaction (i.e. booze and women).

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The acts of terrorism, irrespective of their failure, never ever change the system that makes society function. In this sense, the Guillotine Society fails to be truly violent – their failed acts always failing at effecting change – because the bad objects (e.g. the politicians) they target are not so much the cause, but the effect of said societal system. As they fail in their revolutionary activism, fail to go beyond funding their society, the members of the society are but mere common criminals (i.e. robbers and murderers). This aspect constitutes the sad and slightly sarcastic undertone that insists throughout Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine. The impotence, the impossibility to instigate change of the few against the system, a subtle disillusion for the spectator.

But even though revolution remains a poet’s faraway dream, Zeze highlight the radical revolutionary character of one particular act – an act not born out of revenge, but an act that drives on love. While it is often repeated in the narrative that saving a woman takes precedence over revolution, one should read this in a more radical way: the most revolutionary act of them all is to fight for the agency of a woman as subject.

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The narrative’s unfolding is supported by moments of tension, excitement, and emotional drama. The drama/tension is never too much, never not enough, ever the right sensible amount for the spectator to be able to flow on the ebb and the flow of emotionality of the narrative – the first Sumo-event scene, for instance, succeeds to evoke the excitement of such event in a palpable way. It is because of the thoughtful structuring of the drama and emotionality that the three hours of Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine fly by.

The cinematography of Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine consists in an energetic and ever moving cinmatographical blend (e.g. shaky moving shots mixed with fluid moving shots and shaky semi-fixed shots) (Narra-note 3). The crudeness and the energetic movement of the naturalistic camera gives the spectator the feeling of seeing a “documentary” of a certain (untold) histo-reality (Cine-note 1). The framing of a histo-reality is further emphasized through the use of intertitles and of the objective narrating voice. While the intertitles only grounds the background-setting of the narrative and inform the spectator of the temporal dimension of certain scenes, the objective narrating voice provides structure throughout the entire narrative (Cine-note 2). The narrating voice provides the necessary historical context (e.g. concerning the origin of women’s sumo) and forms the main mould within which the narrative unfolds. By forming a mould for narrative, by contextualizing the narrative of the Guillotine and the Chrysanthemum, the historical backdrop of the narrative becomes even more grounded.

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One stylistic choice that is at odds with the cinematographical flow of the narrative is the fish-eye framing. While this form of framing often guides the spectator’s attention, it nevertheless remains, when seen within the cinematography as a whole, an unnecessary decoration.

Another aspect that makes Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine such an enjoyable narrative are the performances that support the flow of heartfelt and touching drama. While the performances of Mai Kiryu, Masahiro Higashide, Kanichiro, and Kiyohiko Shibukawa are all instrumental in given the narrative its emotional power, the narrative benefits the most impressed from Hanae Kan’s strong performance.

Even though Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine concerns sumo and socialistic and anarchistic ideals, Zeze’s narrative is, at heart, nothing other than a romance narrative. Chrysanthemum and The Guillotine may touch upon many themes, its true message, its moving answer to the themes as intersecting as the narrative unfolds, is only to be found in the very encounter of Chrysanthemum and one of our Guillotines. With Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine, Zeze movingly reveals that the ground for true revolution should be love and its goal the realization of that place where a woman can realize her agency as subject.

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Notes

Narra-note 1: Beyond the anti-korean sentiment, the narrative also touches upon the reality of trauma, when it evokes the impact of the real/the horrors the Korea-veterans faced. This reveals the past reality of being victim within their current role as aggressors.

Note that in 1910, Korea was already annexed and considered part of the Japanese empire.

Narra-note 2: If the sumo-women find themselves in a powerless situation, it is either function of the misogynistic ravage present in the traditional familial system (Kiku, our Chrysanthemum) or the growing anti-korean sentiment (Tamae). By joining the sumo-troupe, they are able to escape a societal system marked by physical/sexual abuse.

Narra-note 3:  The opening composition, the opening-minutes, of the narrative might be somewhat confusing, but this is quickly mended by the intertitles and narrative voice.

Cine-note 1: In the narrative’s unfolding there is a one-time recourse to a flashback. In this flashback the impact of Osugi’s activism is underlined, a flashback deepening Tetsu’s subjectivity and his relationships with the others.

Cine-note 1: One time an intertitle is used in another function – as a mere stylistic choice mirroring still-movies. As this only happens once in the narrative, we find it odd that this intertitle made the final cut.

 

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