Film / Reviews

‘The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine’: A sumo subplot stands out in a crowded film

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. I’m not sure if Takahisa Zeze knows this phrase but it applies to the heroes of his new film, “The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine,” an overly long, high-energy passion project that languished in development hell for nearly two decades.

As members of an actual Osaka-based anarchist group called the Guillotine Society, they are the real knife-wielding, pistol-toting, bomb-throwing deal. The time is soon after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, a disaster that caused social and economic disruptions. Led by poet, and sometimes playboy, Tetsu Nakahama (Masahiro Higashide), they are bent on revenge for the murder of charismatic anarchist leader Sakae Osugi (Toshimitsu Kokido) together with his lover and nephew at the hands of the police.

Those schemes, however, end up as partial or total failures. In one incident, the intense and nerdy co-founder of the Guillotine Society, Daijiro Furuta (Ichiro Kan), fatally knifes a banker on the street but his actual target, the teenage brother of the military officer responsible for Osugi’s execution, escapes.

The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine (Kiku to Girochin)
Rating
Run Time 189 mins.
Language JAPANESE

In another attack, a would-be assassin is accidently knocked off his feet at the crucial moment, and his target, a high-ranking police official, ends up holding the knife meant to kill him, one of the film’s funnier moments.

Why should we be rooting for these guys? True, the Guillotine Society advocated gender and class equality at a time when Japanese society was rigidly patriarchal and hierarchal, but its murderous methods fueled reactionary fires. I was reminded of the Weathermen, American radicals whose bombings and burnings helped re-elect Richard Nixon by a landslide in 1972. They have yet to be subjects for Zeze’s sort of boisterous, sympathetic entertainment, however.

Thankfully, the film connects the Guillotiners to a traveling troupe of female sumo wrestlers who are also striving for equality in their own, less violent way (and are also based on fact). One wrestler is Tomoyo Hanagiku (Mai Kiryu), a fresh-faced newcomer escaping an abusive husband. Another is Tamae Tokachigawa (Hanae Kan), a former prostitute trying to turn her life around. They take their sumo seriously, as does the film, despite an early flash of nudity in the wrestling ring.

Braving the ever-present eye of the authorities, Guillotine Society members come to see the bouts — and Tetsu ends up in the futon with Tamae, while Daijiro is attracted to Tomoyo, though he is slow to take the next romantic step.

There is much more to the story, as well as many more characters. A former director of pinku (softcore porn) films, Zeze has long been a cram-it-all-in maximalist — his 2010 critical breakthrough, “Heaven’s Story,” ran a formidable 278 minutes — and this 189-minute film is no exception. He also over amps the drama, with one character in another’s face, loudly or abusively, in every other scene.

Zeze draws the best from his actresses, though, beginning with newcomer Kiryu. At first looking like a deer caught in the headlights, she proves grittily inspiring as Tomoyo, even in the sumo ring with an opponent twice her size. Meanwhile, Hanae Kan (“Yamato (California),” “Love and Other Cults”) impresses as a scrappy Korean prostitute-turned-wrestler. Her fiery defiance of uniformed xenophobes puts the half-baked bravado of the anarchists to shame.

I’m glad Zeze grappled with this little-filmed period in Japanese political history, but the “Chrysanthemum” (the English translation of “giku” in “Hanagiku”) and her fellow wrestlers deserved a movie of their own.