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)

The Ballad of Narayama (楢山節考, Shohei Imamura, 1983)

ballad of narayama imamura 1983 posterWhen Keisuke Kinoshita decided to dramatise The Ballad of Narayama (楢山節考, Narayama Bushiko), adapted from a recent novel inspired by the ancient legend of “ubasute”, he recast it is as myth – a parabolic morality play adopting the trappings of kabuki to tell a timeless tale of transience and sacrifice. As much as Kinoshita praised the heroine’s kindness and altruistic sense of duty, he also questioned her failure to question the cruel and arbitrary social codes which defined her life, sacrificing her deep familial love for the cold austerity of religious reward. Shohei Imamura, slightly younger than Kinoshita, had also read the novel when it came out though he was not sufficiently progressed in his career to have considered adapting it for the screen. Unlike Kinoshita’s highly stylised approach, Imamura opts for his trademark sense of realism, exposing nature red in tooth and claw as he attempts to restore rural earthiness to the rarefied cinema screen.

Deep in the mountains, a small village does what it can to survive in harsh terrain. 69-year-old Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto) is as strong as they come but she is preparing to meet her end. In the villages of these parts, men and women of 70 are carried by their children to summit of Mount Narayama where they are left as a sacrifice to the god, praying for snow to hasten an otherwise long and drawn out death. Orin’s husband disappeared 30 years ago, the laughing stock of the village for his sentimental aversion to carrying his own mother up the mountain, and her son, Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata) seems equally reluctant to accept that Orin will making her own journey as soon as the next snows arrive.

Existence is indeed cruel. The custom of “obasute” or “throwing away” one’s old people, originated because of a lack of food. There not being enough sustenance to support a large population, the old sacrifice themselves in the name of the young. Life is cheap and of little consequence. Tatsuhei’s simple-minded younger brother, Risuke (Tonpei Hidari), notices the body of a newborn baby emerging from the melting snow to the edge of his rice paddy but the sight does not disturb or sadden him – he is annoyed that someone has “dumped” their “rubbish” on his land. Baby boys, oddly, are worthless – just another mouth to feed until it becomes strong enough to work, but baby girls are a boon because they can be sold. Orin herself sold her baby daughter in desperation following a bad harvest, and when the salt seller calls in unexpectedly Orin is at pains to tell him they’ve still not made a decision as to whether to sell her granddaughter who has been left without a mother following the death of Orin’s daughter-in-law in a freak accident.

She needn’t have worried however because the salt seller is bringing good news – a new wife for Tatsuhei, meaning Orin can make her final journey with an unburdened heart knowing that the household will be taken care of. Tamayan (Aki Takejo), a kind and cheerful woman much like Orin herself, fits right in despite the objections of Tatsuhei’s teenage son, Kesakichi (Seiji Kurasaki), who has got his girlfriend pregnant and wants to “marry” her – bringing not one but two extra mouths into his household. Orin loves him dearly, but all Kesakichi can do is make fun of his granny for still having all her teeth and resentfully enquire if she isn’t needed somewhere up a mountain sometime about now.

Kesakichi’s coldness and selfishness is contrasted with the goodness and warmth of Orin and her son. Hardship, far from bringing people together in their shared struggle, has made beasts of all. Imamura splices in frequent shots of animals copulating or feasting on each other – rats gnawing on the body of a snake giving way to a snake swallowing the body of a twitching grey mouse. Yet it is nature that will win in the end. Early on the village men chase a hare in the snow, Tatsuhei shooting it dead, only for an eagle to swoop down and make off with the prize. On the mountain, strewn with bones, a host of flapping crows emerges from a battered rib cage. 

Catching a thief is no different to catching a hare. Convinced that the thief’s family is a curse on the village, the villagers determine that they must all be eliminated – the roots of a poisoned tree must be burned away. Breaking into the home, friends and former neighbours tie up and kidnap an entire family, burying them alive and then redistributing all their worldly goods in “recompense” for what they’d “lost”. The cycles of loss and redistribution continue, as Tatsuhei observes finding Orin’s belongings draped around other shoulders. Kesakichi, having lost one lover, quickly takes another forgetting the first while Tatsuhei struggles to come to terms with the loss of his mother and the knowledge that someday he too, and Kesakichi, and the sons of Kesakichi, will make this same journey to this same spot.

Kinoshita’s secondary concern had been with the cruelty of the custom and the mechanisms of social conformity which enforced it, but Imamura almost seems to be in agreement with the villagers, finding horror but also beauty in the sacrifice of Orin who accepts her fate with transcendent beatification and willingly sacrifices herself to the mountain gods. The world is cruel, and tender. A son’s acceptance of his mother’s sacrifice becomes the greatest expression of a love he must destroy by honouring.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Eel (うなぎ, Shohei Imamura, 1997)

The EelDirector Shohei Imamura once stated that he liked “messy” films. Interested in the lower half of the body and in the lower half of society, Imamura continued to point his camera into the awkward creases of human nature well into his 70s when his 16th feature, The Eel (うなぎ, Unagi), earned him his second Palme d’Or. Based on a novel by Akira Yoshimura, The Eel is about as messy as they come.

Mild-mannered salary man Yamashita (Kouji Yakusho) receives a handwritten letter filled with beautiful calligraphy delivering the ugly message that his wife has been entertaining another man whilst he enjoys his weekly all night fishing trips. Confused at first, the note begins to work its way into Yamashita’s psyche and so he decides to leave his next fishing trip a little earlier than usual. Peeping through the keyhole, he finds his beloved wife enjoying energetic, passion filled sex with another man. Drawing a knife from a nearby shelf, he enters the room and attacks the pair killing the woman but letting the lover get away.

Yamashita immediately and with perfect calmness turns himself in at the local police station, still covered in his wife’s blood and carrying the murder weapon. Released on a two year probationary period after eight years in jail, there is no one to meet Yamashita when he comes out and so he remains under the guardianship of a Buddhist priest in a nearby town. Accompanied by his only friend, a pet eel, Yamashita takes possession of a local disused barbershop and sets about trying to rebuild his life.

Things change when Yamashita comes across an unconscious woman lying in the grass while he’s out looking for things to feed his eel. The strange thing is, this woman looks exactly like his wife. Eventually, Keiko (Misa Shimizu) recovers and comes to work with Yamashita in his new enterprise but as the pair grow closer the spectres of both of their troubled pasts begin to intrude.

As the small town residents of Yamashita’s new home often remark, Yamashita is a strange man. His deepest relationship is with his eel which the prison guards, who seem quite well disposed towards him, allowed him to keep in the prison pond even though pets are not generally allowed. When asked why he likes his eel so much, Yamshita replies that the eel listens to him and doesn’t tell him the things he does not wish to hear. Like Yamashita, the eel is isolated inside his tank, content to absent himself from interacting with other creatures, both protected and constrained by transparent walls.

After his release from prison, Yamashita begins to reflect on his crime which he doesn’t so much regret but has no desire to repeat. His other double arrives in the form of fellow inmate and double murderer Tamasaki (Akira Emoto) who keeps trying to convince Yamashita that he is living dishonestly by not having visited his wife’s grave or read sutras for her. Though Yamashita pays no heed to most of his advice which is more self-pity and anger than any real concern for Yamashita’s soul, some things begin to get to him, most notably that perhaps the fateful letter never existed at all and is nothing more than the manifestation of Yamashita’s jealous rage.

Though the film presents everything that happens to Yamashita as “real”, his state of mind is continually uncertain. Not only is the provenance of the letter doubted, he doubts the existence of Keiko because she looks (to him at least) like the returned ghost of the woman he killed, and even the final confrontational arguments with Tamasaki take on an unreal quality, as if Yamashita were arguing with himself rather than another man who also represents his own worst qualities – impulsivity, violence, self doubt and insecurity. The film is so deeply embedded in Yamashita’s subjective viewpoint that almost nothing can be taken at face value.

Yamashita is, in a sense, trapped in a hall of mirrors as his own faults are reflected back at him through the people that he meets. Keiko, rather than being physically murdered by a jealous lover, attempted to take her own life after being misused by a faithless (married) man. Her past troubles are, in some ways, the inverse of Yamashita’s as she finds herself at the mercy of dark forces but internalises rather than externalises her own anger. Cheerful and outgoing, she quickly turns Yamshita’s barbershop into a warm and welcoming place which the local community takes to its heart.

Yamashita, however, remains as closed off as ever though he does strike up something of a relationship with a lonely young man who wants to use his barber’s pole to try and call aliens. When Yamashita asks him what he’s going to do if the aliens actually come, the young man replies that he wants to make friends with them. Yamashita astutely remarks that the young man’s desire to meet aliens is down to a failure to connect with people from his own planet – an idea which the young man equally fairly throws back at him. Perhaps out of fear rather than atonement, Yamashita exiles himself from the world at large though gradually through continued exposure to the genial townsfolk and Keiko’s deep seated faith in him, he does begin to swim towards the surface.

Imamura adopts his usual, slightly ironic tone to lighten this otherwise heavy tale allowing the occasional comic set piece to shine through. Yakusho delivers another characteristically nuanced performance as this entirely unformed man, unsure of reality and trapped in a spiral of self doubt and confusion. His original crime of passion is at once chilling in its calmness but also messy and violent as he gives in to animalistic rage. After showing us a street lamp glowing an ominous red, Imamura steeps us in blood as his camera becomes progressively more stained making it impossible to forget the shocking betrayal of this unexpected violence.

Yamashita remarks at one point that he died that day alongside his wife. The Eel is a story of rebirth as its protagonists begin to swim towards the shore in support of each other, though like the titular marine creature there is no guarantee that they will make there alive. Yamashita is a cold blooded murderer and creature of suppressed rage yet Imamura is not interested in moral judgements as much as he is in the messier sides of human nature. A chance offering of redemption for the unredeemable, The Eel offers hope for the hopeless in a world filled with goodhearted eccentrics where all faults are forgivable once they are understood.


Original trailer (no subtitles)