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)

Let Him Rest in Peace (友よ、静かに瞑れ, Yoichi Sai, 1985)

“There are times when you need to stand for something” according to an ultra masculine avenger giving a few lessons in manliness to the already defeated teenage son of a friend. A noirish, stranger in town affair, Yoichi Sai’s Let Him Rest in Peace (友よ、静かに瞑れ, Tomo yo, Shizukani Nemure) locates itself in an awkward frontier landscape, moribund small-town Okinawa seemingly devoid of life now that the Americans have pulled out and moved on. The Americans have, however, been “replaced” by beefed up corporate thugs backed by yakuza muscle and corrupt police. Sometimes you have to take a stand, if only to show them that you won’t be pushed around because if you give in once you’ll never be free. 

Disgraced doctor Shindo (Tatsuya Fuji) has come to Okinawa in search of the Freein, but every time he tries to ask someone for directions, he is met with intense hostility, the last man even telling him “You shouldn’t go there, that place is no good”. This is not because the Freein is mostly home to a collection of brassy sex workers, but because its owner and Shindo’s old friend whom he has come to help has become a local pariah. Sakaguchi (Ryuzo Hayashi) is currently in jail because he apparently went crazy and started waving a knife around at construction magnate Shimoyama (Kei Sato). As Shindo quickly finds out, Shimoyama is in the process of buying up the whole town and Sakaguchi is the last remaining hold out. As such, he is hated by most of the other residents and the subject of persistent harassment by Shimoyama goons who have not only thrown bricks through the windows but gone so far as to kill his son’s dog, later kidnapping the boy to put pressure on the pair of them. 

What’s not lost on Shindo is the extent to which Shimoyama’s corruption has already seeped into the town. Meeting Sakaguchi’s son Ryuta (Makoto Mutsuura) by chance, Shindo takes the boy to see his dad but is again met with hostility by the local bobby, Tokuda (Hideo Murota), who tells him that “Shimoyama Construction is the savour of this town”. “There’s no other company that is so giving”, he goes on, “to have the employees of a company like that working here, I can’t have a wild man like Sakaguchi running about”. According to Tokuda, Sakaguchi is the odd man out, an inconvenience to all those around him who believe in Shimoyama and are trying to save the town. Tokuda looks sheepish when Shindo asks him why he’s so into Shimoyama, confirming the mild suspicion aroused by his improbably fancy watch. 

Tokuda’s warning is however borne out by the townspeople who continue to shun and ignore Shindo while the other kids mercilessly bully Ryuta, calling him the “craziest kid in Japan” and calling for his dad to get the death penalty despite the fact that all he seems to have done is aggressively wave a fruit knife at the wrong person. The local cafe owner describes him as an embarrassment and accuses him of holding out to get more money. After all there’s no future in this tinpot town which seems to exist in the ruins of the post-war era and Shimoyama is already offering triple the going rate so Sakaguchi is only being greedy and selfish. Komiya (Ryoichi Takayanagi), the bellboy, if you could call him that, at Freein, spins it slightly differently, explaining that no one supported Shimoyama in the beginning but they’ve all been harassed themselves and have long since given in. Shindo convinces Ryuta to talk about his kidnapping, but Ryuta tells him that on his return he told his father they should leave, that it was pointless to resist. Shindo asks him if he’s ever been in a fight, but the boy asks what the point is if you know you’re going to lose, “the strong are always strong”. 

That kind of defeatist thinking is anathema to Shindo’s conception of manhood. Despite his father’s incarceration, Ryuta is too afraid of being kidnapped again to go to school. Trying to be nice about it, Shindo calls him a coward for telling his father to leave even though he wants to stay because he allowed himself to be threatened into sumbmission. He tells him that he has to stand up for himself, report his kidnapping to the police. Ryuta tells him he’s crazy, the police are in on it, but Shindo counters that it’s worth trying to get his father out of jail because if they don’t they’ll never know. Ryuta snaps back that he knows already, and indeed bottles his chance when Shindo manipulates Tokuda into “helping” him oppose Shimoyama’s cult-like hold over the town.  

Shindo might not be that much better, he’s prepared to fight dirty, getting hard evidence of Tokuda’s corruption and trying to use it against him but even these methods prove ineffective against such a vast and entrenched mechanism of control. Shindo also realises that Shimoyama’s minion Takahata (Yoshio Harada) is another old university classmate, a member of the boxing club, bringing this widening drama down to the level of three men who went to the same prestigious university but all ended up here, pretty much at rock bottom. Though ironically enough Shindo’s broody silence and dedication to his friend have a few of the women wondering if he might be gay, his preoccupation is with a failure of masculinity. He doesn’t think Shindo was actually capable of threatening anyone, and knows that he had reasons that he might have wanted to try and sort this out sooner rather than later. His son’s words pushed him over the edge. He used his body as a weapon, tried to make Shimoyama damn himself, but his efforts were frustrated. Shindo acknowledges that “saving” his friend might look quite different than one might think, inadvertently teaching young Ryuta a few problematic lessons about what it means to be a man. Still, the town might have been “saved” in one sense at least in being freed of this particular oppressor. A stand has been taken, and a man’s self worth restored, but as Sakaguchi’s wife (Mitsuko Baisho) points out even while fully understanding the codes by which the men around her live, what is to become of those left behind?


TV spots (no subtitles)

The Lady in a Black Dress (黒いドレスの女, Yoichi Sai, 1987)

Lady in a Black Dress posterHaruki Kadokawa had become almost synonymous with commercial filmmaking throughout the 1980s and his steady stream of idol-led teen movies was indeed in full swing by 1987, but his idols, as well as his audiences, were perhaps beginning to grow up. Yoichi Sai’s first outing for Kadokawa had been with the typically cheery Someday, Someone Will Be Killed which was inspired by the most genre’s representative author, Jiro Akagawa, and followed the adventures of an upperclass girl who is suddenly plunged into a world of intrigue when her reporter father disappears after dropping a floppy disk into her handbag. A year later he’d skewed darker with a hardboiled yakuza tale starring Tatsuya Fuji as part of Kadokawa’s gritty action line, but he neatly brings to two together in The Lady in a Black Dress (黒いドレスの女, Kuroi Dress no Onna) which features the then 20-year-old star of The Little Girl Who Conquered Time, Tomoyo Harada, in another noir-inflected crime thriller again adapted from a novel by Kenzo Kitakata.

We first meet the titular “lady in a black dress” walking alone alone along a busy motorway until she is kerb crawled by a yakuza in a fancy car. Declaring she intends to walk to Tokyo (a very long way), Reiko (Tomoyo Harada) nevertheless ends up getting into the mysterious man’s vehicle despite avowing that she “hates yakuza”. The yakuza goon does however drive her safely into the city and drop her off at her chosen destination – a race course, where she begins her quest to look for “someone”. By coincidence, the yakuza was also heading to the race course where he intended to stab a rival gangster – Shoji (Bunta Sugawara), who makes no attempt to get away and seemingly allows himself to be stabbed by the younger man. Shoji, as it happens, is the temporary responsibility of the man Reiko has been looking for – Tamura (Toshiyuki Nagashima), a former salaryman turned bar owner with fringe ties to the yakuza. Putting on her little black dress, Reiko finally finds herself at his upscale jazz bar where she petitions him for a job and a place to stay, dropping the name of Tamura’s sister-in-law who apparently advised her to try hiding out with him.

Reiko is, after a fashion, the dame who walked into Tamura’s gin joint with the (mild) intention to cause trouble, but, in keeping with the nature of the material, what she arouses in Tamura and later Shoji is a latent white knight paternalism. Curious enough to rifle through her luggage while she’s out, Tamura is concerned to find a pistol hidden among her belongings but when caught with it, Reiko offers the somewhat dark confession that the gun is less for her “protection” than her suicide. Not quite believing her, Tamura advises Reiko not to try anything like that in his place of business and to take it somewhere else. Nevertheless, Reiko stays in Tamura’s bar, eventually sharing a room with melancholy yakuza Shoji who is also hiding out there until the plan comes together to get him out of the country and away from the rival gangsters out for his blood.

As it turns out, Reiko had good reason to “hate yakuza” but she can’t seem to get away from them even in the city. Tamura’s life has also been ruined by organised crime as we later find out, and it’s these coincidental ties which eventually bring Reiko to him through his embittered sister-in-law who had been the mistress of Reiko’s lecherous step-father. The codes of honour and revenge create their own chaos as Shoji attempts to embrace and avoid his inevitable fate while his trusted underling (the yakuza who gave Reiko a lift) tries to help him – first by an act of symbolic though non-life threatening stabbing and then through a brotherly vow to face him himself to bring the situation to a close in the kindest way possible.

Meanwhile, a storm brews around a missing notebook which supposedly contains all the sordid details of the dodgy business deals brokered by a now corporatised yakuza who, while still engaging in general thuggery, are careful to mediate their world of organised crime through legitimate business enterprises. Reiko, like many a Kadokawa heroine, is an upperclass girl – somewhat sheltered and innocent, but trying to seem less so in order to win support and protection against the forces which are pursuing her. Though the film slots neatly into the “idol” subgenre, Harada takes much less of a leading role than in the studio’s regular idol output, retaining the mysterious air of the “lady in a black dress” while the men fight back against the yakuza only gradually exposing the truths behind the threat posed to Reiko.

Consequently, Reiko occupies a strangely liminal space as an adolescent girl, by turns femme fatale and damsel in distress. Wily and resourceful, Reiko formulates her own plan for getting the gangsters off her back, even if it’s one which may result in a partial compromise rather than victory. Though Kadokawa’s idol movies could be surprisingly dark, The Lady in a Black Dress pushes the genre into more adult territory as Reiko faces quite real dangers including sexual violence while wielding her femininity as a weapon (albeit inexpertly) – something quite unthinkable in the generally innocent idol movie world in which the heroine’s safety is always assured. Sai reframes the idol drama as a hardboiled B-movie noir scored by sophisticated jazz and peopled by melancholy barmen and worn-out yakuza weighed down by life’s regrets, while occasionally switching back to Reiko who attempts to bury her fear and anxiety by dancing furiously in a very hip 1987 nightclub. Darker than Kadokawa’s generally “cute” tales of plucky heroines and completely devoid of musical sequences (Harada does not sing nor provide the theme tune), The Lady in a Black dress is a surprisingly mature crime drama which nevertheless makes room for its heroine’s eventual triumph and subsequent exit from the murky Tokyo underground for the brighter skies of her more natural environment.


TV spot (no subtitles)

Theme song – Kuroi Dress no Onna -Ritual- by dip in the pool.