The turn of the century saw a handful of iconic Japanese filmmakers retooling their machines and sharpen their swords for a fresh attack. Kinji Fukasaku pulled Battle Royale out of his hat at the age of 70 in 2000, shocking and thrilling audience with its audacity. At 78 Seijun Suzuki came up with a sequel to Branded to Kill, over 30 years after the fact, with the euphorically mesmerizing Pistol Opera in 2001. Not to be outdone, Shohei Imamura directed the mind-boggling Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (2001) at the age of 75. In 1999, the youngest in the group, Nagisa Oshima directed Gohatto (Taboo) at the age of 67. Challenging feudal society in its own element, Oshima's period film examines love among the samurai. Although Gohatto initially stuck me as understated and underwhelming, now, with a second viewing eight years later, it seems like a graceful punctuation point on career.
Suffering a stroke in 1996, Oshima struggled to regain enough strength to direct Gohatto (a film he had already been working on at the time of his stroke.) Oshima reportedly directed the entire film from a chair. Perhaps Oshima knew that Gohatto would be his swan song, or at the very least, his chance to take one final swing. No one could have foreseen that Oshima would suffer another stroke, this one much more serious, after the completion of the film. Retaining many of the themes he was concerned with throughout his career, Gohatto makes peace with his formal filmmaking adversaries, allowing beauty to reign over experimentation.
Set at the very end of Japan's Shogun era in 1865, the elite Shinsengumi militia decides to hold trials for new members. After viewing the skills of the applicants, two young men are admitted, Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano) and Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda). Kano youthful beauty is unsettling for many of the samurai within the militia, including Commander Kondo. Many men within the militia attempt to court Kano, but Tashiro, his fellow recruit, is rumored to be his lover. Jealousy and desire threaten to tear apart the militia as its soldiers start to turn up murdered in Kano's wake.
Oshima's implications of homosexuality among the ranks of samurai is less accusatory than it is allegory. However, the suggestion that these icons of feudal Japan partook physically in their love for one another is an outrageously bold attack and presumption on Japanese culture. In reality, it would be hard to deny that such manifestations occurred within dojos full of testosterone, aggression and rigor. The lines between sex, love, violence and death have always been incredibly thin in Oshima's world.
The realization that Kano is something of a sadist, Commander Kondo becomes complicit to the emotional malaise that ensues. Kondo instantly recognizes Kano as more than a pretty face. The fact that he comes from a wealthy family implies that there is something more to Kano's desire to wield a sword than a livelihood. His dutiful decapitation of a rule-breaking comrade comes effortlessly. Kano's skill and brutality make him even more attractive, even to those who "don't lean that way." When Commander Kondo goes for an extended leave, he does so knowing that he is the cat and the mice are likely to play. Left in charge, Captain Hijikata (Takashi Kitano) fails the test and misreads the situation. Kano is not the passive effeminate, but a hunter who consummates his desires through killing.
The cast is something of a brilliant coupe for Oshima. Gohatto was Ryuhei Matsuda's first feature film, which in retrospect is quite amazing. Matsuda's beguiling looks has made him nothing short of a big star, acting in over 20 films since his debut. Tadanobu Asano was well established in the independent film community. Prior to starring in Gohatto he had worked for such directors as Shunji Iwai, Hirokazu Koreeda, Sogo Ishii, Shinya Tsukamoto, Christopher Doyle, Shinji Aoyama, and Katsuhito Ishii—even as I look at it now, the list is shocking. Shinji Takeda was also an excite new actor on the 'it' list. However, it was Takashi Kitano that Oshima saw as the heart of the film. He voiced his interest in how the young comedian had aged into a more serious persona. Kitano's character, Captain Hijikata, is the one warrior who remains stalwart against the lures of Kano, but also the one who is the most profoundly effected. Historically, Hijikata represented the spirit of the Shinsengumi militia. His death symbolized the end of the Shinsengumi militia, and the beginning of a new era for Japan.
The end is reveled in a series of symbolic tableaux that unveil the characters, resulting in the overt severing of a cherry tree. The film's beauty is only interrupted by divisive intertitles that only succeed in pulling you out of the seductive but cold world of the samurai. The set design and the cool colour palette are perfect for the mood of tempered passions. The desires of Gohatto are not ones that burn red, but desires diminished by fate. Gohatto is set in the twilight: the twilight of the shogonate, the twilight of the fate of the samurai.
Out of the four patriarchs of the Japanese New Wave who put out films between 1999 and 2001, only Oshima and Suzuki remain. Fukasaku went out with a huge bang with Battle Royale, only to have his son muddy the waters with Battle Royale 2. Imamura last film was a surreal short included in the September 11 omnibus. Although Suzuki has said that Princess Raccoon (2005) was probably his last, I wouldn't be surprised if he still had one last trick up his sleeve. Oshima seems to have directed his last however. Quietly living out the rest of his live near Tokyo, little news surfaces about this iconoclast. Gohatto is an end note that is not only beautifully rendered,
but poetically resolute.
"In the Realm of Oshima" continues at the Walker Art Center through November 23.