It is the late 1800’s, Kyoto and the Shinsengumi, the special police force made up of masterless samurai who uphold and protect the Shogunate, are holding a day of try outs for new members. Among the potential recruits one candidate stands out, but not just for his skill with a sword. Sozaburo Kano is only a boy. He says he’s eighteen years-old, but he may be younger. Unlike the other men he’s dressed in pure white and still wears his hair long, and he is beautiful; exceptionally, eerily, almost unearthly beautiful. Everyone present including the Commander, Kondo (director Yoichi Sai) and Captain Hijikata (Takeshi Kitano) are immediately struck by him, but no more than Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano) the only other man accepted along with Kano into the Shinsengumi ranks. Tashiro will only be the first to fall in love with Kano. Many of the other samurai will long for, lust after and bed him until samurai turns against samurai and blood is shed all for a boy who when asked why he wanted to join the Shinsengumi answers, “To be allowed to kill legally.”
In the same way that Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” started a series of revisionist westerns in Hollywood the past decade has seen a string of what could best be called revisionist jidaigeki, or historical samurai dramas. From Yoji Yamada’s much loved Samurai Trilogy to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first try at a period film “Hana Yori Mo Nao” each has taken the genre in a new direction, but none like “Gohatto (Taboo)” (1999); but to make a jidaigeki film was an odd choice for veteran director and Japanese new wave stalwart Nagisa Oshima, especially seeing that it was his last film. This was the man who said that Japanese cinema was filled with “foggy beauty and stupid gardens” and who pushed cinematic boundaries with the sexually explicit “In the Realm of the Senses”. To fall back on this “foggy beauty” would seem like a regressive step, but when dealing with Oshima there is no regression.
Here he produces a film heavy in mood and rich with ritualistic tradition, and I must say one that features so much personality in its sword fight scenes that they reveal more about each character than do the scenes of dialogue. Also Oshima reunites with Takeshi Kitano and Ryuichi Sakamoto (this time strictly behind the camera as the films musical composer) which gives the proceedings a kind of full circle feel. Both men starred in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”, a film that seethed with its own homoerotic subtext. For “Gohatto”, though, Oshima pushes the subtext to the fore and creates a story that fits nicely into his previous filmography; one marked by stories heavy with themes of sex and death. But it isn’t all just an old team reunion, Oshima introduces us to one of today’s most popular actors, Ryuhei Matsuda in his first starring role as Kano, a role that Matsuda was initially reluctant to take due to the film’s homosexual subject matter. While at times a bit wooden he manages to bring to life a young man who uses his physical beauty as a means to his own pitch black ends.
While I wouldn’t recommend “Gohatto” as a good introduction to the work of Oshima I would say that anyone interested in the new crop of jidaigeki drama should definitely give it a look.