In 1996, while he was drafting the plans for what would eventually become Gohatto
, Nagisa Oshima
suffered a crippling stroke. The damage apportioned to his brain left him incapacitated for years. Confined to a wheelchair, the right side of his body completely paralyzed, Oshima continued on and filmed Gohatto
in Kyoto before taking an indefinite leave of absence. After completing the film he survived a second, more acute stroke. Though he still lives, it now appears that Gohatto
will be Oshima’s final film.
It constitutes an interesting epilogue for Oshima’s film career. Compared to his large body of work Gohatto
seems rather ordinary. It bears a plot that is simple and requires no excessive attention to follow. The camera direction is calm and at risk of being understated. When Oshima’s later titles are recalled, especially In the Realm of the Senses
(1976) – famous for featuring unsimulated sex – Gohatto
is decidedly less controversial and decidedly less striking even considering its homoerotic subject matter.
Oshima was born in 1932 in Kyoto, where he attended university during the short rise of leftists and communist sympathizers in Japan. Oshima was himself a Marxist, and though he had intended to claim a law degree he abandoned his studies and applied to an assistant-director program at Shochiku Studios. When he eventually made directorial status he set about creating films that provoked, that were “politically and formally radical.” His first film, A Town of Love and Hope
(1959) was shelved by the studio upon completion because of a disagreement over the film’s conclusion. At this early stage Oshima developed his penchant for vices as a subject matter for film. The likes of The Sun’s Burial
(1960), Pleasures of the Flesh
(1965), and Violence at Noon
(1966) all deal with sexual issues, from prostitution and rape to sensual love. Crimes of all descriptions are smeared throughout his work. By the late 70s much of the global censorship against violence and sexually explicit material had disappeared. Oshima took this opportunity to branch out with the aforementioned In the Realm of the Senses
, which examines the sexual relationship between a former prostitute and the owner of an inn. Oshima cast the pair into an audacious S&M game. The director is perhaps best known amongst typical audiences in the West for Senses
and more so for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence
(1983), which featured David Bowie
, Tom Conti
, Ryuichi Sakamoto
, and Takeshi Kitano
. But in the late 70s Oshima found it grew increasingly harder to create movies due to difficulties raising money. His penultimate film, all but forgotten in the West, Max, Mon Amour
(1985), examined a woman’s sexual relationship with a chimpanzee.Gohatto
too is consumed by something of a sexual taboo with Oshima moving away from bestiality to homosexuality. Oshima found his story in two original texts by the famed author Ryotaro Shiba
, With a Lock of Hair over His Forehead
and The Revolt of the Mountain
. The film is a jidaigeki
(a period piece) set in a period in Japanese history where the shogunate had wrestled control of the state away from the Emperor. A band of samurai that have formed into a militia happen across the beautiful Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda). Impressed both by his skill with a sword and his dainty feminine charm, the militia, headed by Commander Kondo ( Yoichi Sai
), recruit Kano, along with the bold Tashiro ( Tadanobu Asano
). The militiamen become enraptured with Kano, the most Tashiro, who immediately strikes a somewhat one-sided sexual relationship with the youth. Hijikita ( Takeshi Kitano
), a captain in the force, watches while virtually all his enlisted officers become smitten too and confess their homosexual desires for the recruit. The task of keeping the unit in line falls at the stony Hajikita’s feet.
Kano, portrayed by Ryuhei Matsuda.
For all its gabbing about illicit love and its parading of Kano, one is left with the impression that Gohatto
is never really about homosexuality as an act. Rather, the focus is shifted to people and their reactions and their state of mind, a focus that peaks with Oshima trying to keep homosexuality far from the screen. Whenever homosexual love appears it is desperate and heady, yet Oshima provides us with very little manifested love. The most the viewer is confronted with are post-coital scenes. The film revels in its intertitles and embellishes the gay relations through gossip – internal monologues and yammer between officers and talk amongst foot soldiers.
There are three clear instances where love either happens or is hinted at and is driven by the intense desire of either a man courting Kano or driven by Kano himself. The most blatant is the Tashiro’s thirst for Kano which is presented early on. The most Oshima is willing to show of this is Tashiro scrambling into the youth’s bed on two occasions: the first where Tashiro only confesses his desire; the second where Tashiro achieves orgasm. Tashiro’s ecstasy is hidden under the covers and is limited to a few seconds of suggestive thrusting. We never see so much as a thigh. The second instance derives from another man in the militia who has taken an interest in Kano. Whereas Tashiro is more poetic in his love, Yuzawa ( Tomorowo Taguchi
) is pithy and curt, near sado-masochistic in his entreaties toward Kano. The final occasion is brought about by Ito ( Masato Ibu
), who apparently does not desire Kano at all: Captain Hijikita insists Ito take out the youth for a night with a geisha, but Kano, accustomed to flirtation from all angles, interprets the suggestion as Ito’s desire for him. We have the poetic desperation of Tashiro, the brutal desperation of Yuzawa, and the peculiar reverse desperation of Kano in an attempt to dispatch of the officer said to be courting him – enough desperation for him to conceive of murder.
Despite the frontloading of gay desire, Oshima shies away from any real act of love. There is no prejudice against Kano from the militiamen, for instance, as a Western viewer (or, indeed, a Japanese viewer) may expect: the officers accept homosexuality and are troubled only by the fact that their men have lost their focus. As Andrew Grossman observes, Oshima’s refusal to show sex or any real conflict “leaves the audience in a state of longing”. The love in Gohatto
is inert and exhausted compared to In the Realm of the Senses
. Grossman cites replacement shots the director uses rather than show explicit content, like rain dripping from a roof, or the “orgasmic” and “semenic” flow of blood from a wound.
The filmmaker loads scenes with suggestive dialogue, suggestiveness pointed out by none other than the characters themselves, only to have the film’s anchor, Takeshi Kitano, nullify all sexuality. Critics like Rosenbaum and Grossman identify Kitano as the yardstick that Oshima uses to keep any true expression of homosexuality from breaking into the film. Kitano wears a dry, almost pensive glare throughout, rarely allowing thoughts to surface other than those betrayed by internal monologues. Kitano’s Hijikita also bears a clear dissimilarity from other characters – he is the only major player who is entirely uninterested in Kano. Even Ito, who protests his strict heterosexuality, is perceived by Kano as a lover of men; in this instance Oshima cues ambiguity. Kitano’s job is even simply stated: his object is to root out and stop the attention given to Kano before the unit begins to crumble from within. He is to be rid of this affectation afflicting the militia.
Casting Kitano in such a role might seem a somewhat bizarre choice, as both Roger Ebert and Grossman suggest. Any international audience would know Kitano from the likes of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence
or Violent Cop
(1989) or Sonatine
(1993), all films in which he plays a simple, violent (perhaps bordering on cruel) role. Yet in Gohatto
Kitano wears a character that is the converse of his archetype: Hijikita is calm, measured, talkative (as opposed to Kitano’s almost silent Nishi in Hana-Bi
, 1997), and not prone to bursts of violence. Moreover, Hijikita is not bi-curious, another missing quality that Grossman points out with regards to a bi-curiosity that seems to creep throughout Kitano’s films. This works wholly to undermine any true gay sentiments Gohatto
might ever have had. It is captured in no better way than in Kitano’s final scene, where he literally razes beauty from the head down.
The beautiful conclusion in the darkness of the swamp.
, then, is more about establishing atmosphere and being lyrical with its characters and placements than it is a film about homosexuality. The period piece setting in idyllic Kyoto must provide a deft temptation for any director; in Oshima’s hands the result is a work of supreme beauty. Oshima mirrors the film’s homosexual ambiguity with locales filmed. External shots are nearly always at night. The night shots are dimly lit, assuming a sickly bruised palette of dark blues and purples. This chromatic shift from the dark and light browns of the buildings is startling. The outdoors at night is always murky, something made particularly clear by the pitiful lanterns carried by the characters throughout the night sequences. The murkiness is most profuse in the final scene at a swamp; here it is foggy and the image is even dimmer, almost to the point where it’s difficult to make detail out.
Running contrary to such ambiguity are the buildings. All the structures are totally unambiguous. They jut out, trying to be noticed, running in hand with another chromatic shift, away from the dark to and to the light. But it’s more a case of the buildings being austere, populated with lines, and Oshima’s insistence on showing this to the viewer. Wide shots are frequent. This is true for both the indoors where training sessions or meetings take place, or for the outdoors around the buildings, as in when Ito tries to convince Kano to visit a geisha. The buildings make an impression. It’s difficult not to take them in, even when the clear focus of the scene is on a character or the object of the scene is character building. Such an effect is managed also through Oshima’s choice of shot composition and the off-center bent that permeates the film. When Kano flounders about with a cut on his head he is pushed to the side; the camera innocuously favors a set of structural columns for a bridge. Plenty of close-ups are utilized though the characters either cover the left or the right (depending on their position) and rarely the center.
A seemingly ossified Kitano drifts to the right of the frame.
It is just as hard to place Oshima in Gohatto
as it is to place him in any of his other films. As Nelson Kim says, “There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ Oshima shot or scene,” the director instead favoring different styles across multiple films, unlike, for instance, Kitano, recognized from his still, minimalistic camera direction seemingly prized from the likes of Kurosawa. Oshima’s famous goal was to disown the hallowed occupants of Japan’s pantheon of great directors. “I tried to eliminate completely all scenes with characters sitting on tatami while talking,” Oshima said, an attack, as Hoberman says, on the school of Ozu. Oshima’s direction in Gohatto
is passive, perhaps bordering on the detached. By undertaking such an approach he often takes his concern away from the characters and allows the actors to handle the legwork. Kitano provides no clearer example of this. Jonathan Rosenbaum recounts how Oshima gave autonomy to the actors and instead paid attention to the camera’s shape and movement. Such a decision provides for a pleasing visual effect. The camera isn’t slow but it lingers. Every movement is appropriate and bears some consequence. The result is that Gohatto
provides for a very strong visual experience, more so than much of the gamut of his other films, especially the essential predecessor to Gohatto
, the dirty, grungy, aesthetically unappealing Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence
is an eclectic mix of pretty detail. There is no severe edge here. Instead, Oshima tosses up an ephemeral look at human quality and life and how man loves and acts. In this Oshima is not always successful. The decision to be so divorced from the subject matter of homosexuality, and, indeed, to use Kitano as something of a blocker, may jar. But even if it had been at the forefront, such a subject matter would not have been the film’s strength. Oshima, perhaps knowing this, chooses a much more abstracted approach and looks to tell a story; a story critics like Rosenbaum have likened to a poem. The simple story is not provisional. Purely as a piece of grand visual ambition, Gohatto