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Oshima's Gohatto (Taboo)

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    I just finished watching Nagisa Oshima’s Gohatto (Taboo), which I watched twice because there was a lot I didn’t quite understand or catch the first time around. I’d seen references to it, but it took Vili mentioning it as bearing some similarity to the first volume of a manga I’ve read, Ooku by Fumi Yoshinaga, which imagines an Edo-era Japan in which an illness kills off enough boys and men that the population is now 75% female. Women do all the work, men are coddled and prized for their fertility, and the best-looking (and sometimes most desperate) of them are sent to the Shogun’s Inner Chamber — the titular Ooku — to serve the Shogun, who, as everyone knows by now, is a woman.

    The reason the manga reminded Vili of the movie is that in the first volume, a brash young man from Tokyo agrees to enter the Ooku (once you enter, you never leave) so his family can have the money for his sister’s dowry. He is in love with a neighbor, but her father is a wealthy merchant and will indubitably marry her off to someone with more money and higher status than he, the descendant of impoverished hashimoto, has.

    His brashness gets him in trouble with his fellow residents, who decide to teach the bumpkin a lesson through attempted group rape. He defends himself and the rape attempt falls flat, but throughout the volume are sprinkled tales of men, especially younger men, cozying up to and sleeping with older men of greater authority in order to advance, as well as lots of gossip. After all, except for when the shogun calls on them — and until recently, the shogun had been a young girl who had no need for a male harem — they have no other outlet. Some of them serve the shogun in non-sexual ways, such as by sewing garments for the others, but it’s otherwise a closed society with few other ways of dealing with one’s feelings.

    Gohatto is the tale of Kano, a wealthy merchant’s son descended from samurai, who is picked to join the elite force policing Kyoto in the waning days of the shogunate in 1865, after Commodore Perry opened Japan to foreigners but before the Meiji Revolution doing away with the shogunate and restoring the emperor to full power. He is eighteen, thus old enough to shave his head, but he keeps his hair long and in a ponytail, and he is beautiful. He is also an excellent swordfighter.

    His beauty disturbs the harmony of the training outpost. One after another, his fellow officers fall for him, and gossip spreads that he and Tashiro, who was accepted into the squad on the same day as him, are lovers. Without spoiling things too much, the movie eventually tells us otherwise. The captain in charge of training, Toshi (played by Beat Takeshi), is convinced that they are lovers, however, and he watches and sometimes interferes, fascinated by the pull Kano exerts on the other samurai and possibly on him as well.

    As the body count associated with showing affection to Kano begins to rise, Kano could be equated with a ‘belle dame sans merci’ except that his objective seems darker. For me, one way of making sense of his characterization was as the victim of prior sexual abuse (he claimed he’d only had sex with men, not with women, and turns down the opportunity to sleep with a geisha during the course of the movie). He’s also portrayed as being preyed on by those above him in the social hierarchy; the sense is that their advances are unwelcome but can’t be immediately rejected. In this regard, despite his swordfighting prowess and obvious intelligence, he’s feminized and rendered powerless and without agency. This, which for me veers uncomfortably toward territory prevalent in yaoi, manga and other media about men in relationships with each other but aimed at women, where one partner — the more feminine-looking one — is treated much like a woman would be, tends to degrade the relationships from the mentor/mentee ones contemplated by the historical practices of shudo and nanshoku (similar to Greek pederasty) to something closer to rapist/victim.

    There is a somewhat surprising, perhaps even shocking, ending that takes place within an eerie, non-realistic landscape. Much of the earlier parts of the movie are more realistic and replicate sets similar to those from Mizoguchi’s The 47 Ronin except in color. The overuse of intertitles and some other ways in which the film tells the story instead of showing it keeps it from being as delightful to me as Kurosawa’s movies, but it’s still worth a look, as its aesthetics are generally quite different from Kurosawa’s.



    I really must get back to watching some of Oshimas films. When I first started getting into Japanese film I read quite a bit on Oshima and was looking forward to watching a few of his films in sequence. I was, I must admit, very disappointed. In fact, more than disappointed, I found that I really hated the films for reasons that I couldn’t quite understand. The last one I saw was Gohatto, and I hated that one most of all. After having enjoyed so much discovering the films of Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, and also enjoying the more guilty pleasures of later Japanese exploitation films, Oshima seemed to me to be an exploitation film maker with a fatal lack of a sense of humour and far too high an impression of his own importance. I found his films seemed so in love with his taboo breaking that he forgot to actually make something interesting. My impression of Gohatto was that it was very uneven and that some of the actors seemed thoroughly uninterested in their parts (or was this a sort of deliberate underplaying?).

    Looking back, I think my reaction was partly colored by my dislike of some of his writings (especially his crass early dismissals of Kurosawa), and the undoubted fact that his films haven’t dated very well (as is I think nearly always the case with taboo breaking films). I also think that maybe I didn’t quite understand Oshima’s perspective – this really was at the very beginning of my interest in Japanese film so I was watching them quite ‘raw’.

    So I think now that a couple of years have passed since I’ve watched one, I’ll give some of his films another look as soon as I have time. Maybe even Gohatto! I might understand what he was getting at a little more. But I do think that Oshima falls into the category of a film maker who was maybe a little over-rated in his day and will be seen a little more critically when compared with some of his contemporaries, such as Shohei Imamura.



    Ugetsu – After a solid beginning, with the sword fights to pick new candidates that results in Kano and Tashiro being chosen, I disliked much of Gohatto until the latter half of the movie. Part of it was feeling that there was too much telling and not enough showing (this was not helped by his overreliance on intertitles); part of it was that the story seemed meandering and unfocused (and I had trouble keeping the characters and their names straight); and part of it was the pacing and setting.

    I meant to, but didn’t find a good place to mention the air of unreality even in fairly realistic shots. When they weren’t walking around the city or fighting, the way the sets contrasted with the actors made it look fake. The best I can put it is that it was obviously shot on a soundstage and not in real life; it looked like a TV drama or soap opera, where the actors look solid and three-dimensional and the sets look flat and two-dimensional. It made it hard to suspend disbelief. Kurosawa sometimes had his actors act or pose in a stylized, unrealistic way for artistic or compositional reasons — it’s something I noticed and meant to, but failed, to comment on in connection wtih No Regrets For Our Youth; it’s not confined to highly stylized movies like Rashomon or Throne of Blood — but the dynamism of his movies and actors is enough to sweep you along and enable you to continue believing in what you see.

    The feminizing of Kano’s character, where he was the object of lust solely because of his near-feminine beauty, also annoyed me, in part for personal reasons — I see too much of this elsewhere — and in part for political reasons. The main reason I read slash or m/m romance is to avoid the tropes that arise from gender inequality. I don’t want it reimported into m/m stories. (The tendency to feminize one partner, especially the one who is the receiver or is more passive, is one of the reasons I don’t read as much yaoi as I used to.)

    But the meandering storyline, and a few things that seemed psychologically improbable, made more sense by the end. Enlightened as to what happens, at least to some extent, I was able to watch the film again with new eyes and liked it much better. It is subtle and meandering, and I’m not sure what the point of the part where they chase the men from the other group who spied on their sparring session was unless (and this strikes me as a possibility) Kano was a spy sent into their midst to sow discord and mess with everyone. Also, rather than an intense psychological study of obsession, both from the point of view of the men obsessed and the one with whom they were obsessed, which is what I expected, it’s more of a mystery. What’s Kano’s purpose in joining, and who killed Yuzawa?

    As for the acting, I wasn’t expecting something as histrionic and dynamic as Kurosawa’s movies because the acting style appropriate to his stories wouldn’t have worked here, but sometimes the main character seemed a little blank (in retrospect, probably deliberately), and Beat Takeshi as Toshi is a little wooden (one side of his face is paralyzed), and a few of the others are also subdued, but I thought the actors playing Inoue, Soji (the other samurai with long hair who was the swordfighting expert), Yuzawa, and poor hapless Yamazaki, with whom Kano fell in love, were quite good.

    Another thing to keep in mind is not only was this Oshima’s first movie in many years, but it was made after he suffered a debilitating stroke. He’s since suffered more strokes, so it’s likely that this was his last movie.

    I forget; did you watch Mizoguchi’s The 47 Ronin? Does this movie remind you of that one at all the way it reminds me?

    Oshima is definitely no Kurosawa when it comes to setting up shots or writing screenplays. In fact, given that Kurosawa wrote or co-wrote every movie he made, wrote screenplays that others made movies from (suggesting he was good at it), and thought writing screenplays the most valuable thing a fledgling director could do, I think his knack for writing interesting screenplays that tell a story in a satisfying and effective way is more what separates Kurosawa from other directors than his technical prowess at setting up shots and editing (although he’s a master at those, too). Someone like him, who can create a complete and satisfying story and and make every shot not only count, but look artistically and compositionally perfect, is head and shoulders above other directors who can do one or the other well, but not both.

    BTW, I saw Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence in the movie theater when it came out and liked it a lot, but I haven’t seen it since. Nor did I realize at the time that it was directed by the same director who made In the Realm of the Sense (Ai no Corrida), about which I’d read a lot and which a friend of mine from law school, her husband, and a friend of theirs saw. The most I learned about it from her, though, was that it was particularly tough for the two men to watch the end of the movie. Now I’m interested in seeing In the Realm of the Senses and some of his movies from the 60s, particularly the one about the Korean underclass in Japan. Honesty about the fraught relationship between Korea and Japan, especially when it comes to Koreans living in Japan, is unusual in Japanese culture.




    I forget; did you watch Mizoguchi’s The 47 Ronin? Does this movie remind you of that one at all the way it reminds me?

    No I haven’t seen it (or any other version of it). So far as I know, its not available in Region 2 dvd. Perhaps I should watch it before the dreaded Keanu Reeves version is released!

    I think that Oshimas lack of skill in setting up a scene is quite distracting (for me). I can’t remember much about the details of Gohatto, but i remember one little fight scene which I thought was so badly set up it had to be deliberate in some way…. but I’m not sure what the explanation for this would be. I think perhaps we are so spoiled with looking at masters like Kurosawa and Mizoguchi that we forget how hard some scenes are to do convincingly. But this sort of film always makes me wonder if its me who is ‘missing’ something vital, or whether others have read too much into the ‘gaps’, seeing depth when there is really nothing there.

    It was interesting though to see the Kurosawa interview by Oshima – they seemed to get on remarkably well, and they were both very interesting and enlightening.



    Ugetsu – I thought I remembered that Oshima interviewed Kurosawa. For someone who seemed to hold grudges (see his refusal to use Mifune again as an actor even after they’d started talking to each other again), Kurosawa was surprisingly genial given the nasty things Oshima said about him earlier in his career. Isn’t that interview part of the extras for Seven Samurai? Anyone know when the interview was filmed?

    I didn’t notice fight scenes being badly set up. The fight scenes didn’t bother me. And possibly it was intentional, to make it look awkward.

    I’ve been advised that computer DVD drives are region-free, and then there are ways to get your player to play all regions. Vili, you’ve seen The 47 Ronin, right? Do you see any resemblance in style?



    I used to quite like Oshima. Later, I have come to readjust my views slightly. For me the sticking point is not so much his use of camera, but the rhythm, which I no longer seem to be able to get into. Gohatto, however, remains a film quite dear to me. I haven’t seen it for years, but I do listen to Sakamoto’s soundtrack CD occasionally. It’s quite beautiful. As was the film when I last saw it.

    I don’t know if I noticed any parallels between Gohatto and The 47 Ronin when we watched the latter last year. But as I said, it’s been ages since I saw Oshima’s film, and I must confess that I didn’t much care about Mizoguchi’s, finding it difficult to stay awake at times.

    Ugetsu, you can find a region free copy of The 47 Ronin on eBay. Or, just send me your address, and I’ll send my copy to you. I could do with more shelf space.

    I think that Oshima’s occasional criticism of Kurosawa(‘s work) may have been taken out of context. I have a book of Oshima’s collected writings, and the two direct references to Kurosawa in it are both very positive, one in an essay written in 1956, and the other from 1958. Oshima also openly admired many of Kurosawa’s films, such as No Regrets for Our Youth (on which he wrote quite extensively, I think — not to say that he didn’t criticise parts of it as well) and Record of a Living Being (Galbraith quotes Oshima as having admiringly said that the film was like being “struck on the back of the head with an iron rod”, p. 223). In his own work, Oshima certainly set out to work against the traditions laid out by Kurosawa, but that I would say is simply a healthy sign of a new generation film maker rebelling against the previous generation.

    The Kurosawa interview is, I think, from 1993. I’m not sure how close the two were at the time, but it is perhaps interesting to note that after producing Ran, the French film producer Serge Silberman’s next project was Oshima’s Max Mon Amour. The two film makers have also shared a number of staff members. Off the top of my head and from Ran alone, I can think of Toru Takemitsu (who scored a number of Oshima’s films) and Emi Wada (who is responsible for the costumes in Gohatto).



    Thanks for the offer of the dvd, Vili, I’d like to see it sometime – if I can’t find a copy I’ll take up that offer – very busy right now, so I don’t have time to see many dvd’s.



    Ugetsu: very busy right now, so I don’t have time to see many dvd’s

    Unfortunately, that’s true with me as well. 🙁



    I think analyzing Gohatto as a gay love story is honestly quite unfair to its theme. The theme of Gohatto is closer to a Mishima theme of the destructiveness of beauty and how the society perceives its destructiveness, and therefore Kano has to be an object of desire that can cause enough chaos within the Shinsengumi. A lot of the dialogues were directly lifted from the novel, as well as some of the intertitles. I think Oshima intentionally used the intertitles as a tribute to classic silent films, possibly because prior to this project he was working on a Sessue Hayakawa biopic.

    As far as the femininity argument goes, I also don’t agree with it much. If you look at the actors closely, Okita is also much more feminine than the other samurais (Okita’s actor was the original choice for Kano actually, but because of Oshima’s stroke he ended up to old for the role), so the men’s obsession with Kano is actually more tied to his youth rather than femininity. Youth itself is quite associated with being agender / bigender, but how Kano’s character is constructed goes far deeper than his femininity.

    Also, despite the fact that Oshima never was that big of a Kurosawa fan, I do agree with vili that his quotes were probably taken out of context. Two cases recording his direct criticism of Kurosawa I came across were from Joan Mellen, but I think since she was recollecting of the occasion later, she simplified his arguments by so much that they sounded quite more illogical than Oshima’s own arguments would probably have been, and if Oshima’s quotes were presented within the context it would have probably made sense more. Donald Richie has also mentioned Oshima criticizing Kurosawa in the 60s but also remembered him congratulating Kurosawa later on a specific occasion. However, I don’t think Kurosawa doing the interview with Oshima was much indicative of how well they got along, because by that time Oshima was already the president of DGJ, and the interview was done on behalf of DGJ. What’s indicative of how Kurosawa saw Oshima was the fact that he put Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence on his top 100 (or 50) Japanese film list, but no film by Kobayashi, who respected Kurosawa a lot more but also tried to outdo him, made it on that list.

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