Takahisa Zeze: Crime, Punishment, and Transcendence

The great Japanese director who started in pink eiga remains stubbornly undiscovered by the respectable institutions of cinephilia.
Olaf Möller

Takahisa Zeze's The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine, which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from November 19 – December 18, 2019 in MUBI's Luminaries series.

Above: Heaven's Story

One of the carefully hidden programming delights of Venice '19 was a showcase of current Japanese films—industry-only thus not in the general schedule. Among the new releases screened there was (The Promised Land), by Takahisa Zeze—a name a friend remembered fondly from decades ago when Zeze's early pink eiga-masterpieces like when Zeze's early pink eiga-masterpieces like Waisetsu bōsō shūdan: Kemono (No Man's Land, 1991), Kōkyū Soap Technique 4: Monzetsu higi (The Dream of Garuda, 1994), Honban Les: Hazukashii taii (Fallen Angels in September, 1994), or Sukebe tenkomori (End of the World, 1995) toured the Western festival circuit as the latest in avant-garde entertainment. As she had the necessary kind of festival badge, this friend was able to enter the screening. A little over two hours later, she exited with glowing eyes wondering: “Why on earth didn't this get selected for the official program?”

There're several answers to that, none of which has anything to do with the film's extraordinary qualities—another small masterpiece by an auteur delivering film-shaped genius with dazzling regularity, year by year. Zeze is living the dream of every true filmmaker: He's working all the time; he can, due to his reliability cum commercial successes, exercise serious control over the projects he commits to; and has the opportunity to change registers as much as he wishes. He's in a position where he can hopscotch between massively budgeted prestige productions like the two-part, 4h+ police procedural epic 64 (Roku yon, 2016) and smaller endeavors like the tres pink-ish mix of mystery, magic and mass media infatuation, Maria no chibusa (2014), or one of his many takes on the difference between chance and fate, Nariyuki na tamashii (2016); with some highly personal, often time- and labor-intense projects thrown in for good measure, chiefly his lone essay in nonfiction creation, a three-part, 5h+ attempt at exploring the then and now of an infamous, ultra-left-wing late-60s band, Documentary Zunō keisatsu (2009), or his monumental meditation on murder, desire and the Beyond, the almost-5h Heaven's Story (2010), or his wild folly about anarchist politics and female sumō as twin harbingers of echt Taishō-style high modernism, Kiku to Guillotine. Onnazumō to Anarchist (The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine, 2018).

Above: The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine

Problem is: This is exactly the kind of career contemporary film culture doesn't know how to deal with, being impossible to pigeonhole while in good parts very audience-friendly (as nowadays film art hipster lingo would have it in its soft totalitarianism). And one has to say: This is not only true for folks from anywhere but Japan—even back home some people don't really know what to make out of his artistic trajectory. In the rest of the world it was all quite obvious: When Zeze broadened his horizons in the late 90s, early 2000s with Kuroi shitagi no onna: Raigyo, Kokkuri-san (both 1997), Hysteric (2000), Rush! (2001) and "Eros Honban" Series: Yuda (2004), festivaldom as well as formerly curious and willing DVD-labels slowly started to lose interest—the whole pink eiga-stuff was sexy for unlike anything to be found in the rest of the world (pret-à-porter movie fare hijacked by modernist visionaries—yeah!), while the more general-market conscious productions were... what exactly? What exactly was and seemingly still is the problem? Probably this: They showed how unruly a talent Zeze really is; his non-pink eiga-productions revealed an imagination, intellect cum aesthetic sensibility defiantly alien to the looks and ideas internationally hip these days. His wacky science-fiction stampede Dog Star, SF Whipped Cream (both 2002) and Moon Child (2003), all shot in a row (interrupted only by a bit of work on Kan ☆ Deka Sexaroid Cop, his contribution to the 2003 collective project Kaette kita deka matsuri), revels and perplexes in its merry mixing of the brainy and the broad, of adhering to genre formula while delighting in unexpected stabs at genre-bending, of rigorously worked-through ideas with purely intuitive flights of fancy; while, for example, his box office victory 8-nengoshi no hanayome. Kiseki no jitsuwa (The 8-Year Engagement, 2017) looks too Nicholas Sparks-ily innocuous for comfort.

Above: Hysteric

That Zeze's œuvre is a tightly interconnected whole for all its different aesthetic and narrative strategies explored over some 60, 70 works of various lengths—an auteurist's dream come true—doesn't seem to matter much. Just marvel at how 8-nengoshi no hanayome. Kiseki no jitsuwa, with its story of fate and destiny and wonder, is brooding over similar questions as the outrageously complex Heaven's Story or the pink eiga-extravaganza Tōkyō X Erotica. Shibireru karaku (2000) on its serious Buddhist level; and how that film is on its cynicofrivolous political level as much a lose chronicle of the early Heisei-era as 64is a treatise on the changes between Shōwa and Heisei-era mores and morals private as well as public; and how again that film's sense of history, the role Japan played in the 20th century sometimes actively and sometimes passively connects like crazy all through Zeze's œuvre, from Waisetsu bōsō shūdan: Kemono's paralleling of the first Gulf War with his randy outsider's feeling of an overwhelming social alienation, to the middle part of Documentary Zunō keisatsu which looks at the fallout of WW2 and the Palestinian Question apropos the life and family history of singer-guitarist Nakamura Haruo, a.k.a. Panta; not to mention that Zeze's cinema includes one of the most multi-faceted looks into the lives and roles of foreigners in Japan (including Japanese of non-Japanese descent...), ranging from his first pink eiga, Kagai jugyō: Bōkō (Go to Haneda and You Will See Kids Dressed like Pirates Ready to Attack, 1989) with its Taiwanese gangsters and japanyuki, via SF Whipped Cream with its aliens taking care of an abandoned Japanese baby, to the science-fiction actioner Strayer's Chronicle (2015) whose mutants are easily identifiable as yet another alien variation.

Zeze is brilliant in creating weaves where very different shapes and shades suggest harmonies and possibilities not yet seen—in the middle-ground, for the middle-ground. Zeze's cinema is all about reinventing a popular consensus with an anarchist's dedication to questioning 24/7/365 the status quo—fused with a Buddhist's understanding of the world as but fleeting. 

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