I found what turned out to be the last film directed (form a wheelchair, following his first stroke) by Ôshima Nagasi, “Gohatto””Taboo” (1999) too long (100 minutes) and/or too slow. Particularly annoying are the inter-titles, which mostly state the obvious, though some signal how much time passes before the next scene. I guess the most defensible of the inter-titles is the series that lays out the samurai code. The samurai code did not prohibit passionate same-sex love. Only someone unable to read the inter-titles (in Japanese or in English) and completely unfamiliar with the history of wakashû-dô—the Tao of loving boys, could think that “homosexuality” was tabooed….
“Gohatto” begins very near the end of the Tokugawa era, in 1865. In the ancient Nishi-Honganji temple, those seeking admission to the Shinsengumi militia are being screened. Only two are accepted: a swaggering hirsute Tashiro Hyozo (Asano Yadanobu) and Kano Sozanburo (Ryûhei Matsuda), a tall, smooth-skinned beauty from a rich family. Given the looseness of the costumes and probably too much background of gender-bending Japanese and Chinese films (Twilight, The East Is Red, etc.), I wondered if the beautiful youth was being played by a female (an exceptionally tall one!). He was not.
Kano’s face may look effeminate, but he is an expert swordsman and more than ready to kill. He gets his first chance immediately, being ordered to behead a samurai who has broken the code. The captains of the militia want to test him, and he passes the test impassively. Indeed, everything he and every other samurai does in the film, they do impassively. There are passionate words, but rarely even a flicker of facial indication of feeling. Except for Mifune Toshiro occasionally looking sardonic, this impassivity in killing, in being killed, in bowing, and in being bowed to is true of the whole library of samurai films.
The beautiful young (bishonen) samurai desired by many, even those not heretofore drawn to that way (tao), mostly dodges the lusts he inspires, In the one sex scene is impassive as a not-at-all-attractive samurai takes him from behind. As in erotic Japanese woodblocks neither is naked. Especially for Oshima, there is very little sex. Blood splatters, so the movie might have some attraction for an American audience.
The wakashû is fairly sinister: when asked why the son of a rich family wants to be in the militia, he answers: “to have the right to kill.” And though he expects to be the object of desire, he is not a devotee to nanshuko-do. The extent to which beauties are responsible for the excessive reactions to them is an interesting one that I will not attempt to answer here. Nor will I attempt to adjudicate whether the havoc is wreaked by Kano, by his suitors, or by favoritism across ranks.
The film and even its ending seem to be opaque to many viewers. The audience in which I saw the film seemed surprised by the casual acceptance (by non-samurais as well as by samurais) of boy-love and unable to “read” the ending. I think that all the cultural knowledge that is necessary to interpret the visually striking final scene is that the cherry blossom is a recurrent metaphor for the inevitably brief charm of beautiful boys. (At age 18, the forelocks should be shaved off, marking the extinction of boyish attractiveness of a junior samurai. Kano resists this rite of passage, as he dodges other attempts by Captain Hijikata to defuse his specialness.)
Oshima specialized in aestheticized representation of highly charged desires. “Gohatto” is often visually striking, especially in the final scene and in the prostitute sashaying to her appointment, but presumes a familiarity with a vanished society that even many Japanese lack. The least medieval character is Captain Hijikata (the top-billed actor/director/painter Takeshi “Beat” Kitano). The basis of his special interest in Cadet Kano remains open to multiple interpretations.
The movie was a coproduction between Shôchiku, where ˆÔshima got his start as an assistant director and then director, and the French Canal+. All four of his last four feature films were French coproductions. The costume design was by Wada Emi, who had worked with Kurosawa on “Ran” and “Dreams” and would later work with Zhang Yimou on “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.” The music was by Ryûichi Sakamoto, who did not act in the film, as he had in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.” Ôshima adapted two novellas by Shiba Ryôtarô.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray