Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Gohatto (Taboo)

A movie about unresolved issues and emotions that left me with a few of my own too. Indeed I hadn't reviewed it sooner simply because I wasn't sure that I had actually understood it.

The action is set in late-stage Tokugawa in the near obsolete all-male Shinsengumi samurai militia school in Kyoto. Hearts and swords are a flutter when Commander Kondo picks the geisha-like rich-kid Sozaburo Kano from amongst 1865s Bushido wannabes. His influence could best be decribed as disruptive in an austere environment unaccustomed to serious emotional disturbances off the battlefield.

Reading a few reviews by American critics didn't exactly help me to decipher Gohatto - they're all fixated on the idea that this is all about the issue of gays in the military. But it would have been easy enough to introduce a don't ask don't tell subplot into a more mediocre film like The Last Samurai to bring these sort of simplistic political points as much to the fore as they need to be brought.

Director Nagisa Oshima on the other hand is a master of erotically-subtle, enigmatic film-making. Most notably he has given us Ai No Corrida (1976) and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983), which like Gohatto featured the marvellous music of Riuichi Sakamoto and introduced Beat Takeshi to Western audiences.

Last night Frode had his Japanese phrasebook and wanted to practice asking for a table at a number of packed-looking sushi joints. I suggested he should also practice Takeshi's ominous twitchy look for when they tried to turn him down! It looks like Gohatto was made fairly shortly after Takeshi's moped accident which left one side of his face partly paralysed. It gives him a slight emotive edge over Ryuhei Matsuda who, as the elusive prettyboy Kano, attempts to squeeze every last drop of icily sinister coquetry out of the impassive look.

Impassive, but not passive as several critics have insisted. My take is that Kano is a bloodthirsty sociopath that is playing them all for kicks.

Nagisa Oshima's intent I believe is to tease us with imagery that offsets the placidity and serenity of the place, the people and the lifestyle with the chaotic passions seething beneath. There's surely a message in there for modern Japan, and it isn't limited to the issue of what to do about occasional homoerotic spasms in the ranks.

I suspect there are also significant elements of farcical comedy and leanings towards the supernatural in Gohatto that require greater immersement in Japanese culture to grasp completely.

The opening Kendo practice scenes reminded me of my years in the fencing salle. It's one of the unusual conjunctions of my relationship with V that we had both been swordspeople - though she was actually a very good one, becoming junior national champion. We didn't know this about each other until she came to London and found my gear at the back of a cupboard.

It might be fun to have a go one day at writing a provocative film script about that licentious apostate 'queen' William Rufus, with a view to radically challenging the Hollywood simulacrum of the Middle Ages. It's actually surprising that nobody has had a go at this before - an atheist homosexual that comes to a very mysterious and cinematic sticky end. Might be hard to craft any worthwhile "best actress in a leading role" opportunities though. Maybe the Prof would collaborate.

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