Decades before Title IX and the Netflix short doc Little Miss Sumo, women’s sumo wrestling was a popular attraction in Japan. Evidently, many rural spectators flocked to bouts in the mistaken hope the wrestlers would grapple topless. These weathered peasants were exactly the sort of lumpen proletariat the anarcho-socialist Guillotine Society hoped to radicalize, so they too start attending the tournaments staged by Tamasaburo Iwaki’s touring wrestling stable. They will stir up considerably more love, lust, and tragedy than revolutions and consciousness-raising in Takahisa Zeze’s The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine, which screens tomorrow as part of the Mubi Presents series at the Spectacle Theater.
The Imperial regime cynically capitalized on the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 to crackdown on revolutionary elements. That included assassinating the charismatic leader of the Guillotine Society, as well as his wife, a feminist professor, and their six-year-old nephew. As the new de facto leader of the underground organization, Tetsu Nakahama burns for revenge. However, the unpublished poet and self-styled Valentino is not a formidable man of action. When one reprisal attempt goes horribly wrong, Nakahama and the achingly conscientious Daijiro Furuta retreat to the countryside to lay low and raise funds for a further attempt.
One day, they attend some matches held by Iwaki’s wrestlers. Nakahama is immediately struck by Tamae Tokachigawa, a former prostitute, who survived a massacre of ethnic Koreans instigated by a clique of local veterans turned vigilantes. At the same time, Furuta is quite struck by the younger and more naïve Tomoyo Hanakiku (or “Kiku” for Chrysanthemum), who joined the stable after fleeing her abusive husband.
Suddenly, Nakahama and Furuta largely lose interest in politics, especially the former. Unfortunately, they will get dragged back in again when the vigilantes try to flush out the Guillotines by targeting the wrestlers. They are a sad, clumsy lot. Sort of like Clouseau, they suspect everybody and everything, but their methods are brutal and their hunches are not wrong.
So, this film is three hours and nine minutes long. It is good, but that is still a tad bit excessive. In fact, the first two hours set in 1924 are considerably more engaging and engrossing than the subsequent hour set several years later. Arguably, it might have been more effective as an epilogue than a full third act.
Nevertheless, the cast is excellent and Zeze sustains an impressive vibe of wistful romanticism during the respite from the grubby business of revolt. Some ambitious programmer should consider pairing it with Radford’s Il Postino.
Young Mai Kiryu is an arresting wide-eyed wonder as Hanakiku. As a bonus, her sumo chops are also pretty convincing. However, Hanae Kan really shatters our hearts with her achingly anguished and vulnerable performance as Tockigawa. For half the film, Masahiro Higashide seems questionably glib as Nakahama, but he goes to some interesting places when the tragedy starts to crescendo, whereas Kanichiro’s Furuta is a consistently soulful sad sack.
Throughout C&G, the Guillotine Society are like the Keystone militants, who can never shoot straight. Zeze definitely sympathizes with peasants, as well as domestic violence victims and plucky underdogs in general. However, his portrayal of the Guillotines, almost like children in a state of arrested development, is unlikely to earn C&G a spot on Antifa’s watchlist—but that makes the film interesting to rest of us law-abiding bourgeoisie. Recommended for patrons of Japanese Cinema (historicals, romantic tragedies, sumo movies), The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine screens tomorrow night (12/15) at the Spectacle and it streams for five more days on Mubi.