Gohatto (御法度, Nagisa Oshima, 1999)

Nagisa Oshima once said that his hatred of Japanese cinema extended to absolutely all of it, decrying the hackneyed nativism of “foggy beauty and stupid gardens”, yet his final film is filled with Mizoguchian mist and almost a paen to Japanese aesthetics which ends with a cherry blossom tree in full bloom cut down in its prime. Burdened by the slightly more salacious title “Taboo”, Gohatto is less about love between men in an intensely homosocial world even as it asks what it might mean by “forbidden” or “against the law” than it is about idealism and aesthetics as its band of contradictory conservatives unknowingly approach the end of their world in a coming modernity ushered in by dangerous beauty. 

Set in the Kyoto of 1865, a scant three years prior to the Meiji Restoration, the film opens with an audition of sorts as the Shinsengumi search for promising new recruits among talented swordsmen. Already a mess of contradictions, the Shinsengumi is, loosely, a kind of official police force dedicated to defending the Shogunate against the revolutionary forces set on restoring power to the emperor. Nevertheless, in an odd way and in contrast to the elite Mimawarigumi which was staffed only by direct retainers to the Shogun, the Shinsengumi was noted for its lowkey egalitarianism in that it made a point of admitting those of ordinary birth as well as lower level samurai and ronin. Of course, the notions of equality only went so far and perhaps only fuelled its reputation for merciless savagery, but also make it a strangely progressive force fighting against progress in defence of the feudal status quo. 

Only two of the hopefuls are thought to be any good, one a young ronin, Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano), and the other a beautiful boy, Kano Sozaburo (Ryuhei Matsuda), the third son of a wealthy merchant whose line were once samurai but are no longer counted among the noble retainers. A talented swordsman, Sozaburo’s dangerous beauty presents an existential threat to the Shinsengumi order, the steely Hijikata (Takeshi Kitano) looking on conflicted in witnessing the way his commander, Kondo (Yoichi Sai), looks at this vision of androgynous beauty remarking that he had not known him to be “that way inclined”.

Being that way inclined does not seem to be a particular issue within the Shinsengumi, it is not against their draconian rules and in fact appears to be tolerated at least as long as it causes no further problems. Kondo is however mindful of the chaos caused by a similar wave of homoerotic lust which took hold shortly before a climactic battle which would prove to be their last success. What Sozaburo seems to arouse in them is something more dangerous than the accepted patterns of love between military men which is in a sense sublimated as a mentor/student relationship, loyalty more than romance. Tashiro, who is of a similar age to the apparently 18-year-old Sozaburo, lets his desire be known, vowing to sleep with him before he dies ironically acknowledging Sozaburo for what he is, an angel of death. 

For his part, Sozaburo remains curiously passive in each of his encounters, aroused only it seems by the act of killing. Yet Hijikata discerns that he has indeed become Tashiro’s lover on witnessing them fight, Sozaburo losing clumsily despite being the more skilled in a dynamic that mimics their relationship in which Tashiro is the dominant partner. Aware of the danger in Sozaburo’s allure, Kondo suggests having a superior take him to the red light district to show him the delights of woman hoping to guide him back towards a less dangerous path, only the attempt backfires on several levels. Firstly, Sozaburo has no interest in women and continues to decline believing his commander is also hitting on him (like everyone else), thereafter determined to seduce him after all. Another retainer does indeed succeed in seducing Sozaburo, developing a mild obsession, but later ends up dead, Tashiro a main suspect in his murder with the motive of sexual jealousy though all of this additional violence is perhaps only an expression of Sozaburo’s dangerous beauty. 

As so often, sex if not love becomes the force which destabilises the social order only here it’s equated both with death and with an alternative mediation of male violence. Perhaps reflecting the way they look to the 18-year-old Sozaburo who makes a faux pas in accidentally suggesting at least one of them is of pensionable age, the ranking members of the Shinsengumi are played by actors already well into their golden years as if relics of a bygone era though in reality most were in their 30s. As Soji (Shinji Takeda), a filial figure like Sozaburo wearing long hair, puts it, there are no old men in their unit which is in essence an anti-revolutionary force. Nevertheless, the Shinsengumi is on the wrong side of history and already living in its end times, perhaps ushered towards its doom by the figure of the beautiful boy. “You were too beautiful”, Hijikata eventually laments as he finally perhaps understands the nature of the revolution he is witnessing. Perverse to the last, Oshima sets his ethereal finale in a stygian fog and pays an ironic tribute to the Mizoguchian classicism he so railed against in his youth, taking a sword to the cherry blossoms as he like Hijikata severs his own legacy in a moment of destructive beauty. 


Gohatto screens at Genesis Cinema on 25th September as part of this year’s Queer East

International trailer (English subtitles)

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (戦場のメリークリスマス, Nagisa Oshima, 1983)

Merry-Christmas-Mr-Lawrence-images-832f3814-1564-403a-a98a-313c5bb99deOf all the post-war Japanese filmmakers, the one who liked to twist the knife the most was surely Oshima. No subject too taboo, no pain too raw – he liked to find the sore spot and poke at it a little, if only in the hope of encouraging an accelerated healing, albeit one which would leave a scar to remind you that once you suffered. With Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (戦場のメリークリスマス, Senjou no Merry Christmas) he takes an unflinching look at the treatment of Japan’s prisoners of war and contrasts the Japanese forces with the different attitudes of the (mostly) British soldiers held within the walls of the camp.

Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Laurens Van der Post, The Seed and the Sower, much of the action takes place in a prisoner of war camp run by the Japanese in Java in 1942. The titular Lawrence (Tom Conti) is one of the British prisoners here but unusually speaks fluent Japanese as he lived in Japan for a time before the war. The camp is run by Captain Yonoi (played by Ryuichi Sakamoto who also composes the music for the film) but largely ministered over by the more sadistic Sergeant Hara (played by Takeshi Kitano in an early straight acting role and billed here solely as “Takeshi”). Things kick off once Yonoi is called away to help preside over a military trial for a “difficult” prisoner who refuses to talk. However, Yonoi is somewhat taken aback by the upright soldier he discovers there. Celliers (played by David Bowie) is sentenced to death only to have the firing squad deliberately miss before he’s transferred to Yonoi’s camp.

As expected the conditions at the camp are not particularly pleasant. The first scene we’re treated to is Lawrence being called to witness an altercation where a Korean/Japanese soldier is accused of raping a Dutch internee. Hara taunts both of them with homosexual slurs and berates the Dutchman for not having resisted strongly enough. Kanemoto, the accused man, has obviously been badly beaten and is eventually ordered to commit seppuku which he eventually tries to do at that very moment by impaling himself on a bayonet. Seppuku is not something to be taken so lightly though so he’ll be patched up now for a ritual suicide later to be witnessed by the wronged parties (whether they wish to watch or not). Homosexuality, or more precisely, homosexual acts, are not to be tolerated among prisoners even if Hara later protests that samurai are not afraid of “queers” whilst insinuating that the majority of Englishman are gay anyway.

Latent homosexuality continues to be an ongoing theme throughout the film. The attraction between Yonoi and Celliers passes beyond simple admiration or even fascination. There don’t seem to be any other particular reasons for Yonoi to continue trying to protect Celliers as he does when he saves him from the firing squad and later allowing him a greater degree of freedom than other prisoners. Both men feel themselves prisoners of their respective social systems – Yonoi as the cold hearted samurai, efficient and unfeeling, yet with an intellectual core and a conflicted heart, and Celliers as a man desperately trying to atone for having once betrayed someone he deeply cared for in a misguided attempt to fit in. That said, both men are on opposite sides of a war and in any case that kind attraction stands against both of their countries’ current social customs. Again, a man is betrayed by a kiss and another man pays an extraordinarily high price leaving the other powerless to save him.

As Lawrence says there are no winners here, wars are just men doing what they thought was right at the time even if they really know that every one of them is wrong. The Japanese are rigid, repressed and anxious whereas the British are obsessed with honour in other ways and lean more towards the side of pragmatism when the going gets tough. A Japanese soldier may prefer to die, even going so far as to commit suicide, rather than subject themselves to the humiliation of having been captured alive. A British soldier will accept becoming a prisoner but largely because he believes he has a duty to live on and serve to the best of his capacity. Once captured, his duty is to try and escape to return to fight and die for King and country until the bitter end.

What both sides have in common is the dehumanisation of its troops. When it comes down to it one man is as good as another. If a radio has been smuggled into the camp someone must be punished for that action, the exact identity of the perpetrator becomes almost an irrelevance. Likewise, if a war has been lost, someone must pay for wrongful acts committed by the losing side even if his actions are no worse than those of any other soldier.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence proves a beautifully sad condemnation both of the rigidity of war, of men who think they’re acting in righteousness when the very idea is the one which causes them to act unjustly, and of repressive social systems in general. Lawrence acts as the voice of reason whilst all the while admitting that he himself is also “wrong” and forced into certain actions and modes of behaviour with which he does not necessarily agree. Both of these empires are on the verge of crumbling, all this death and cruelty will prove to have been for nothing. War is a fruitless tragedy in which there are no winners, only losers on every side. “There are times when victory is very hard to take”, victors too need to abide by their own sense of decency without being swayed by vengeance masquerading as righteousness.


Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence is available with English subtitles on blu-ray as part of The Criterion Collection in the US (and was previously released on blu-ray in the UK from Optimum/Studiocanal but appears to be currently out of print).

(That final voice over is needlessy creepy, isn’t it?)