Movie Reviews: Gohatto (Taboo)

Gohatto could have played under the title of a book about the homosexual liaisons that formed between some warriors in feudal Japan: Comradely Loves of the Samurai. The chosen title, however, means “taboo” or “prohibited”, but what is taboo and prohibited in this film is not so much erotic liaisons between men but insight into their real meaning. The movie is not about homosexuality, but about manipulation—how a pretty face, male or female, can compel others to do things they might never normally consider.

The director was Nagisa Oshima, the same man who gave us In the Realm of the Senses, another movie about unbridled sexuality opening a doorway to hell. Here he adapts Ryotaro Shiba’s historical novel Shinsengumi Keppuroku, and shows how the samurai code was a life-denying force, forcing its adherents to adopt behaviors that were not so much unnatural as inwardly and outwardly inhumane.

The movie is set in the 1860s, the years before the Shogunate collapsed and allowed the country to be Westernized. During that time, a militia named the Shinsengumi (the “Newly Chosen Corps”) sprang up, numbering several hundred men at one point, and doing their best to protect the Emperor (and Japan’s sovereignty, by proxy). They were ultimately doomed, but they became national heroes for their perseverance in the face of impossible odds, and barely a year goes by without a movie that touches on the subject. Some of the men in question indeed had homosexual bonds, but a fair amount of literature has sprung up around the subject to show that such relationships were more out of convenience than anything else and hardly indicated a culture-wide tolerance for homosexuality in general.

Shinsengumi militiaman Hijikata Toshizo eyes several possible new
recruits for his force. Of them, two seem the most likely candidates...

Most of the characters in the film are drawn from actual members of the militia. The commander of the group, Kondo Isamu (Yoichi Sai) and his lieutenant, Hijikata Toshizo (Takeshi Kitano), have selected two new recruits: a low-level samurai named Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano), and Sozaburo Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda), a merchant’s son who is so improbably handsome he could easily pass for a woman. Tashiro takes one look at Sozaburo and is instantly attracted to him. Unfortunately, so is most of the rest of the outfit, although they are more loathe to admit it at first—and it isn’t long before Hijikata sees Kondo and even himself behaving in similar ways, and unable to fathom why. Surely a pretty face isn’t that powerful?

There are a couple of ways this material could be presented. One, it could have been turned into a slapstick Japanese bedroom farce, with one samurai going out the door while another crawls into the bed, etc., etc. Two, it could have turned into a gory, erotic/morbid story like in one of Yukio Mishima’s novels. Oshima didn’t follow either of those paths and instead made a coolly tongue-in-cheek story that takes its material seriously, but not so seriously that it collapses into pretentiousness. It’s a very funny movie, but in an underhanded way that we don’t often notice, and a lot of people are liable to be a bit confused by such an approach. (The intertitles that he uses to bookend certain sequences, for instance, are often timed as much for laughs as they are for anything else.)

...the handsome Tashiro, and the effeminately lovely Sozaburo.
Between the two of them a dangerous and one-sided bond will form.

The first and most crucial element is how Sozaburo hardly seems to notice the reactions he inspires in others. Or, if he does, he downplays them so much that he makes us wonder: Surely he can’t be wholly ignorant of the effect he has on others? He seems uninterested in Tashiro’s advances, and even pulls a knife on him one night when the other man slips into the futon next to his and fondles him. Later on, another samurai (Tomoroh Taguchi) who might have information about a couple of insurrectionists is similarly smitten for him, and Sozaburo submits to his lust while bedridden, but by that time we’ve already started to see how Sozaburo works. If people are willing to do foolish things in his name, he seems to say, let them. When he tells people that he joined the militia to have the right to kill, they don’t seem to take him very seriously. Their loss.

Oshima picked one of Japan’s most iconic actors, Takeshi Kitano, for Hijikata, and the casting is both correct and dead wrong. Hijikata was no more than thirty at the time, and Kitano is entirely too well-weathered and gravelly of voice to look that young. On the other hand Hijikata was said to have a wolfish demeanor, and that is something Kitano can project almost without trying. Tadanobu Asano is another favorite of mine, and while he essentially has a supporting role here he still inhabits it comfortably. Most crucial is Ryuhei Matsuda as Sozaburo, son of iconic Japanese actor Yusaku Matsuda and every bit as delicate-looking in real life as he is here. I especially liked him in Collage of Our Life and 9 Souls, where he’s similarly gentle-looking although to totally different effect.

Sozaburo joined the Shinsengumi to have the right to kill, or so he says.
Somehow that element of danger makes him all the more attractive to his fellow men.

Japanese studios have standing backlot sets to recreate past eras from their history on demand; the sheer number of historical TV productions and movies shot every year pretty much demand it. Oshima wasn’t content to just use the usual by-rote sets and costumes, though; he drafted in designer Emi Wada (Ran, Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Rikyu) to wrap the film and the actors in an additional layer of sumptuousness. The Shinsengumi were known for their colorful overcoats, but instead Wada suits up the men in brown and black kimonos to make them all the more ominous and funereal. They don’t act as if they’re all doomed—how could they know?—but we over a century later know better, and the somber design is like a visual footnote to their collective fate. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s elegantly dark score works to the same effect, and it even works apart from the movie as a piece of dark atmosphere (I have it in fairly heavy rotation on my music player).

I’ve seen Gohatto three times now, and it stands up better on a repeat viewing than it does the first time around. I was initially baffled, for instance, by the very end—an unsettling monologue by Kitano capped with a magnificent closing shot. At first it’s cryptic, but the second time around it takes everything we have learned throughout the whole movie and snaps it into perfect perspective. It’s one of the best one-man endings to a story since George Dzundza’s monologue in the little-seen Streamers, except instead of a speech we get a simple image that says more than the character himself can or should.

Even those who don't imagine themselves to be drawn to Sozaburo are influenced by him,
which becomes the crux for the movie's real and not-so-obvious themes.

What I think is going to be clearest about the film—and this is something that might even come through on a single viewing—is that it is not about gigantic emotional revelations or earth-shaking moments in a personal life. It’s almost deliberately a movie in a minor key, despite some of the material it traverses. A number of people have criticized the movie for taking this note with the material, but I found it curiously refreshing. It tries to seduce us into learning about its characters instead of beating us over the head with manufactured confrontations between them. There’s something admirable about that.


Tags: Japan Tadanobu Asano movies review samurai

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the categories Movie Reviews, Movies, published on 2000/12/12 23:25.

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