films from japan
When the film ended I felt as though I had dreamed it. This is probably thanks to the ambiguous, ethereal final sequence, as well as the fantastically eerie score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, and perhaps simply the reflection that I had just been immersed in a world of gay samurai, where narrative development was secondary to pathos and psychology. It’s important to note from the outset that the contemporary notion of homosexuality implies a specific sexual identity which does not apply to the sexualities in this work – our samurai seem closer to the pederastic Ancient Greeks. Perhaps it’s just me, but I feel there’s a strange link between this work and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, only instead of an effeminate Victorian who uses his beauty to exert a devastating influence on himself and others, we have an effeminate samurai whose beauty alone exerts a devastating influence on others. Unlike in Wilde, agency and morality are not a strong focus, but like in Wilde, homosexual love and destructive beauty are very much on the agenda.
The recent death of Oshima Nagisa makes it a timely moment to consider his last film, Gohatto (1999, released in some countries as Taboo). In addition, the lack of comprehension that I’ve seen in many internet reviews of this film compels me to write my own – for instance, Brian McKay’s summary, “A Gay Samurai Murder Mystery that’s lacking in all three categories”, which fails to consider that this film might incorporate but not belong to any of those “categories” (though the idea of a “gay” genre is highly contestable). In many other cases, homophobia, orientalism, and genrefictation have constituted the frameworks used to understand this film on the internet.
Speaking of genre: I’ve only seen a few films by Oshima, but of these what is most interesting is the lack of continuous style in favour of flitting from one genre to another. It’s as though Oshima chooses to make a film within the general conventions of one genre only so that he can challenge and transgress those conventions, and then once he’s blown the whole thing apart he moves on to another genre. For example, his most famous film in the West, Ai no Korīda, is (in the director’s words) “a pornographic film”. Using this as a starting point, Oshima took on Japan’s censorship laws, the line between art and porn, and the patriarchal conventions of porn itself (e.g. Oshima allows us to experience a female gaze rather than a male one, the penis is often shown flaccid rather than erect, etc.). With Gohatto, Oshima follows the same trend, deconstructing the jidaigeki by focussing on a detail of samurai life that has been pruned form history thanks to the homophobic media of the 1950s and beyond.
Not only homoeroticism, but the lack of an action-driven plot subverts genre expectations, and also means that, for the most part, the samurai are idly spending time at their headquarters, seeking sexual pleasure from women as well as men, or practicing swordplay. A large portion of the film’s action emerges in these training exercises, in which we know neither samurai can hurt the other. This freedom from danger and event-driven plot mechanics allows for a peculiar affect of viewing. Instead of trying to wrap us up in the tension, Oshima shows us senior samurai (such as the central character played by the superb Kitano Takeshi) observing from the sidelines, judging the style and technique of the fighters. By presenting violence in this theatrical way, Oshima encourages us to become like the senior samurai: detached, contemplative, giving points as we see fit. As a result, the action sequences come across as some of the most exhilarating, enchanting examples of swordplay that I’ve ever seen in a film.
Given that this work comes from a man who, as I mentioned, is renowned for subversively presenting explicit sex as art, it’s surprising that the most beautiful sequences are of action in the training sessions rather than in the bedroom. The erotic tension that Oshima builds in the action sequences is palpable, yet oddly absent in the very modest sex scenes. While I admire Oshima for portraying homoeroticism as a quotidian phenomenon that emerges in all aspects of life, it seems a shame that a beautiful film that has “dangerous beauty” as one of its primary themes forgoes the opportunity to make gay sex appear beautiful. I freely admit that my judgement is shaped by the times we live in.