Review: The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine

Watched The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine, my second online screening in Japan Society’s “Aim for the Best: Sports in Japanese Cinema” retrospective.



To be perfectly honest, this relentlessly gritty period drama feels like an odd fit for an event intended to spotlight “sports movies”; while a large portion of the plot revolves around a women’s sumo troupe, the film’s thematic interests obviously lie elsewhere (with the notable exception of a single scene in which a group of horny men attend a match expecting some kind of sleazy, exploitative striptease—only to discover that the wrestlers are, in fact, legitimate athletes). The story is set in the decades immediately prior to the eruption of World War II, and the sociopolitical climate of Japan during that turbulent period—widespread poverty in the wake of earthquakes, droughts, and famines; the rise of nationalism, imperialism, and militarism; police brutality, vigilante “justice,” and the subjugation of ethnic minorities (especially Koreans) and those promoting “subversive” ideologies (socialists, anarchists); and the gradual erosion of freedom as extremist attitudes slowly and insidiously infiltrate the mainstream—takes center stage.


I don’t mean to criticize The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine for its narrative ambitions; indeed, when judged on its own merits, it is immaculately crafted and emotionally resonant. Within the context of this particular mini-festival, however, a grim and somber meditation on the cold, tragic reality of revolution (the self-proclaimed rebels are a ragtag collection of poets and philosophers, and most of them end up dead before reaching the age of thirty) is a bit... dense (in terms of both its subject matter and its three-hour running time) compared to a pair of upbeat, life-affirming documentaries. In the more expansive, tonally-diverse program that was originally scheduled, it might have found company amongst the likes of Akira Kurosawa's Sanshiro Sugata and Kenji Misumi's The Sword; unfortunately, in the current truncated version, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

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