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Set during Japan's Shogun era, this film looks at life in a samurai compound where young warriors are trained in swordfighting. A number of interpersonal conflicts are brewing in the training room, all centering around a handsome young samurai named Sozaburo Kano. The school's stern master can choose to intervene, or to let Kano decide his own path. Written by
Jean-Marc Rocher <email@example.com>
"Gohatto" ("Taboo") is a fascinating film about the danger of beauty : to sum it up, a young "ephebe"'s ethereal beauty spreads like a plague, infecting a whole company of iron hard men in the process. As you must know by now, Oshima tackles in this film the forbidden subject of homosexuality among Samurais.
The movie's premise -and this is a bit of an understatement...- unleashed controversies and protests, in some Japanese traditional quarters : "taboo" indeed (-What about American cowboys, too ? Officially all white heterosexuals ? Yeeeah, right...) But I would argue that, somehow, the "homosexual act" itself is not the film's core subject : its characters discuss it quite openly; we are nowhere near the sniggering comedies of the West, the politically correct heavy handed lessons of Hollywood, or the louche coded homoerotic European art films. This ...is a Japanese movie : about beauty vs. discipline; self-denial and ideals; internal conflict and tragic resolution. Homosexuality here does not equate limp wristed / camp / victimised diffidence and other suchlike cliches -from the start, we are shown that Kano is a ruthless killer, and a master swordsman.
What disturbs, and gradually destroys, the supremely rigid order of the Samurai militia is Kano's personal aura, his -apparent !- frailty, this unnerves these iron hard warriors, the story of which is cleverly presented in a two-pronged attack by Nagisa Oshima.
On one hand, the master director plays it seriously, insisting on very static set pieces (where seated, immobile, Samurais discuss sex and murder without flinching); on the other, Oshima introduces elements of pure comedy....The name Shakespeare crops up (more about that later).
Firstly, this is a very formal film : static, slow, constructed, well-defined, about structures to be respected upon penalty of death, codes of honour (such as sexual : official initiation by geishas; or ethical : no betrayal of the group), hierarchical ("Which school do you belong to ?" they ask of each other), etc.. In a weird way, Takeshi's own facial half-paralysis serves the purpose of the film. Not to mention Kano's immaculate white attire, as opposed to the black armours all around.
But on the other hand, there are elements of comedy. The old unassuming guy who Kano meets turns out to be an officer ...and also a clumsy swordsman (joke fight scene), the colossus assigned to take the youth to a brothel sends the wrong signal ("-Er... don't !" he reminds himself), and so on. After a while, the story almost turns into a "whoddunit", except this time it's physical attraction we're talking about : which one of these hard men, beneath the surface, has not secretly fallen for Kano ?
I mentioned Shakespeare earlier : I saw this film with some Japanese young ladies, who confessed afterwards that , without the subtitles, they wouldn't have understood the language : old Japanese. But I am also thinking of the juxtaposition of levels : comedy and drama, love and ethics, saucy overtones, ...and the ineluctability of tragedy to unfold. It's pretty clear that the alleged lover, Tashiro, is not in fact, and that he will serve the hand of fate : sublime last scenes.
Finally, for all lovers of Japanese cinema, it's fun to spot Takeshi's mates, who usually feature in his trademark ultra-violent, Zen nihilistic, gangster movies : they're all here, under various fabulous wigs.
If you liked this film, you'll love Claire Denis's "Beau Travail", that was the best film of 2000.
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