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European/U.S. poster for TABOO

TABOO - GOHATTO
Reviewed May 2001

Oshima Nagisa is thought by many to be the most dynamic director of Japanese film since the legendary Kurasawa. After a 14 year absence from film making, Oshima has once again shaken the world of cinema with his latest breathtaking work, Taboo (or Gohatto in Japanese). Best known in the West for directing In the Realm of the Senses (an erotic masterwork that was censored in Japan), and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (which starred David Bowie), Oshima now offers us a dazzling period piece full of extraordinary beauty and unrestrained passions.

Gohatto is a romantic tale of love between samurai warriors, and given the fact that Oshima, 68, has said of himself "I break taboos, and I'm interested in people and actors who break taboos", this samurai film is unlike anything that has ever proceeded it. Set in Kyoto during the spring of 1865, the film opens with the Shinsen-gumi militia choosing new recruits to add to the ranks of their samurai warriors. Out of all those who compete in a ferocious duel with the militia's top swordsman, the cheerful but tough as nails Soji Okita, only two are chosen, Tashiro Hyozo and Kano Sozaburo. The moment the handsome young Kano entered the militia grounds everyone took note of him as a bishounen (beautiful boy). All were taken by the effeminate 18 year old warrior's bewitching good looks, even those who did not have "that leaning." It was as if a delicate porcelain doll had entered the world of grizzled fighting men.

Hidden desires took control when militia commanders Kondo Isami and Hijikata Toshizo agreed to take in Kano, as much for his devastating presence as for his skillfulness in handling a sword. To test the young Kano's resolve, Kondo and Hijikata decide to have the young recruit be the executioner of a samurai who has broken the militia's strict rules. When the doomed man is decapitated by an unflinching Kano, who then ritualistically presents the head to his military commanders... the leader Kondo falls in love with Kano for his "courage", and Hijikata, disturbed by the young man's coldness, is nevertheless oddly attracted to him. By this time, Tashiro and Kano have settled into their austere surroundings, with Tashiro professing his love for Kano and openly courting the young samurai. Tashiro's passion is so overwhelming that soon the entire militia comes to think of the two recruits as lovers.

Japanese poster for Gohatto
From left to right, Soji Okita, Kano Sozaburo, and Tashiro Hyozo. This image is a detail from the Japanese Gohatto movie poster. Click the image to see the entire poster.
But the sexual intrigues are just beginning to develop. Other high and low ranking samurai make overtures to the seductive Kano, and soon the entire structure of samurai discipline is thrown to the winds as various men, openly and secretively, compete for Kano's affections. Throughout all this erotic turmoil, Kano remains aloof and uncommitted to anything save his life as a samurai.

One is never quite sure if the mysterious Kano is actually romantically involved with any of the militia men. He seems to harbor some great secret, and only an occasional disarming smile revels any emotion at all. At times he seems innocent and boyish, even keeping the hair style of an adolescent... some say, to intentionally provoke sexual desire in men. Kano appears to enjoy all the attention he receives, but his thoughts and motivations remain enigmatic.

Postcard of Kano from the Japanese DVD

When a member of the Shinsen-gumi militia turns up dead under suspicious circumstances, the plot begins to thicken. The militia commanders are aware of rival samurai who want to undermine the Shinsen-gumi and challenged their authority... but the commanders also fear and suspect that the passions and jealousies of their own men regarding Kano may have lead to deep divisions and foul play. The way in which the commanders choose to resolve the dilemma only makes matters worse and leads to an almost total unraveling of the Shinsen-gumi. I won't give the details away but the plot twists and turns eventually come to an unexpected and explosive culmination.

Oshima said almost playfully of his film, "I wanted to surprise the Japanese public by choosing a work that was slightly different." The audience is challenged by forcing a reexamination of male sexuality, using as the focal point that most macho of all Japanese figures, the samurai. As the director put it in his own words, "On the question of strictures against gay lovers in Japanese society, I would say that historically it has been relatively lax. Within this relatively lax situation, it in fact flourished."

Gohatto is not just a masterfully told story about the human heart and carnal desire. It's incredibly lavish set designs, use of historic locations, heart stopping swordplay choreography, and excellent costuming by Emi Wada, make for a visually unforgettable film. Each scene's spectacular design is surpassed by the next, with the ending moments of the movie containing some of the most sublime and profoundly beautiful images ever committed to film. Fans of Japanese animation will immediately see a similarity with the series Rurouni Kenshin, or any other anime and manga title where bishounen are central to the story.

All of the actors give superlative performances. Matsuda Ryuhei, the fresh young face who plays the part of Kano Sozaburo, is absolutely perfect in the role of the irresistible bishounen. But my favorite actor in the film is the ultimate tough guy, "Beat" Kitano Takeshi, who plays commander Hijikata Toshizo. Beat has directed and starred in numerous Yakuza (Gangster) films... his most recent being Brother, making him one of the biggest stars in Japanese cinema. His portrayal of the stoic and granite-like Hijikata, torn between feelings for Kano and his sense of duty, is a marvel to behold.

 

The wonderful music for Gohatto was composed by Sakamoto Ryuichi, and his purely instrumental score is understated yet compelling. The composer embellished the tragic tale of Kano with a brilliant sound track whose melancholy theme song reoccurs throughout the film. It is a haunting, heart breaking melody that captures the very essence of the movie's temperament. Best known to American film buffs for scoring the music to The Last Emperor, Sakamoto first emerged in the 1970's as part of the ground breaking Japanese art band, Yellow Magic Orchestra.

Official Japanese Artbook
Postcard of Hijikata from the Japanese DVD
The rugged "Beat" Kitano as militia Commander Hijikata
Gohatto is one of the most unusual, poetic, and stirring films ever to have been made, and it surely marks Oshima Nagisa as the greatest living film maker in Japan today. Entered in the Cannes Film Festival 2000, the film also enjoyed a November theatrical premier in the United States.

Most likely Gohatto will not receive wide acclaim in the U.S. due to its controversial subject matter, but that should not prevent film lovers from seeking out this masterpiece from one of cinema's greatest mavericks... Oshima Nagisa.

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