Best Known Movie about Shinsengumi in Europe: Gohatto/Taboo 御法度


Gohatto/Taboo (御法度)by Ôshima Nagisa (1999) is an example of the jidaigeki genre (historical drama often taking place in the Edo period).
This movie is the last directed by Ôshima Nagisa, a famous Japanese director. It was entirely shot in a studio because of the director’s constant troubles with his health.
It is the adaptation of a novel by Shiba Ryôtarô, a writer specialized in historical fiction.
The movie was nominated and shown at Cannes in 2000 for the Palme d’Or, but didn’t win the prize.

Gohatto HQ photo 03It is the story of a young Shinsengumi recruit named Sôzaburô, who is quite androgynous and causes a lot of dissensions inside the ranks (I even read somewhere that a similar story happened for real, resulting in Hijikata’s prohibiting homosexual relationships between members. I have to admit that I am unsure about my sources, but I find this story quite amusing nevertheless).
Main historical characters are Hijikata Toshizô (portrayed by Kitano Takeshi, a famous Japanese actor), Inoue Genzaburô (Captain of the sixth unit of Shinsengumi), Isami Kondô (of course) and Okita Sôji (who wasn’t ill at the time).
Fictional main characters are Kanô Sôzaburô and another new recruit, his lover Hyōzō Tashiro.

I remember that the first time I saw the movie, it was on TV. I was fourteen at the time and thought while looking at the description given by Télérama: wooow, Samourai, movie broadcast in Japanese… Coooool! My father, who’s not fond at all of Japanese culture, hated it from beginning to end. As for me, I did not know of the historical context, and so did not understand half of the film. Still, the movie is not as dense as other jidaigeki dramas can be. At that time, Gohatto taught me that there were many many things that I did not understand in Japanese culture…

Gohatto HQ photo 06Years later, I rediscovered the movie. The plot is basic –soldiers fighting for love- but the script emphasizes the tension and is quite efficient. My favorite part is the music: the main theme is simple, discreet, minimalist for maximum effect. It’s simple: whenever I hear it, my shoulders instantaneously  become tense. Characters are well portrayed and the Captains are easily recognizable, which is not often the case in jidaigeki for a foreigner’s eyes.
Some innuendos can be missed without a basic knowledge of homosexuality in the Edo period, of course, but not enough to prevent you for spending a good time looking at the movie. (For example, how Sôzaburô can be sexually provocative by refusing to cut his hair. One of the novels which inspired the movie was untitled “Maegami no Sôzaburô”, Sôzaburô with a fringe).

Even if the movie is accessible for a non-initiate, Japanese movies are quite different from American or European ones. The rhythm is usually slower and not everything is explained –we can sense that there the Buddhist and Zen influences- and yet we go from character to character without psychological introspection. For example, the main character Sôzaburô remains a mystery through the film. He wears white while all others wear black and is always seen through Hijikata’s or other warriors’ eyes, as an apparition. Personally, I think of it as an interesting point of view, getting along with the foggy atmosphere of the movie, but some criticized it.

Gohatto HQ photo 08My main problem is the twist at the end, which I still don’t understand. It may be me, but I think it comes out of the blue, to say the least, which goes against every rule I learnt about writing movies. I have to be vague because I hate to spoil a good movie’s end. Apparently the twist does not correspond to the end of the original book which can be the reason why… (I am talking here about Hijikata’s revelation just after the last bridge crossing scene).

It still is a movie worth seeing at least once.

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Main Protagonists

The Shinsengumi is full of famous names, which you’ll have to know in order to study any adaptation.

Below is a list of the different members:

Commander 局長 (Kyokuchô)

  • Kondo Isami

Vice Commander 副長 (Fukuchô)

  • Hijikata Toshizo


General Secretary 総長 (Sôchô)

  • Yamanami Keisuke


Staff Officer 参謀 (Sanbô)

  • Ito Kashitaro


Captains 組長 (Kumichô)

  • 一番組組長 Okita Soji (1st Unit Commander)
  • 二番組組長 Nagakura Shinpachi (2nd Unit Commander)
  • 三番組組長 Saito Hajime (3rd Unit Commander) (Commander in the Battle of Aizu)
  • 四番組組長 Matsubara Chuji (4th Unit Commander)
  • 五番組組長 Takeda Kanryusai (5th Unit Commander)
  • 六番組組長 Inoue Genzaburo (6th Unit Commander)
  • 七番組組長 Tani Sanjuro (7th Unit Commander)
  • 八番組組長 Todo Heisuke (8th Unit Commander)
  • 九番組組長 Suzuki Mikisaburo (9th Unit Commander)
  • 十番組組長 Harada Sanosuke (10th Unit Commander)


Spies,Investigators 監察方 (Kansatsugata)

  • Yamazaki Susumu
  • Asano Kaoru
  • Shinohara Tainoshin
  • Arai Tadao
  • Hattori Takeo
  • Ashiya Noboru
  • Yoshimura Kanichiro
  • Ogata Shuntaro (Later captain)
  • Oishi Kuwajiro
  • Yasutomi Saisuke (Later Vice Commander)


Corporals 伍長 (Gochô)

  • Abe Juro
  • Hashimoto Kaisuke
  • Hayashi Shintaro
  • Ibaraki Tsukasa
  • Ikeda Kotaro
  • Ito Tetsugoro
  • Kano Washio
  • Kawashima Katsuji
  • Kazurayama Takehachiro
  • Kondo Yoshisuke
  • Kumebe Masachika
  • Maeno Goro
  • Nakamura Kosaburo
  • Nakanishi Noboru
  • Obara Kozo
  • Okuzawa Eisuke
  • Ozeki Masajiro
  • Shimada Kai
  • Tomiyama Yahei


Accountants 勘定方 (Kanjôgata)

  • Kawai Kisaburo
  • Ozeki Yashiro
  • Sakai Hyogo
  • Kishijima Yoshitaro


Mibu Roshigumi 壬生 浪士組

  • Serizawa Kamo (Commander)
  • Niimi Nishiki (Commander, later Vice commander)
  • Abiru Eisaburo
  • Endo Joan
  • Hirama Jusuke
  • Hirayama Gorô
  • Iesato Jirô
  • Kamishiro Jinnosuke
  • Kasuya Shingoro
  • Negishi Yuzan
  • Noguchi Kenji
  • Saeki Matasaburô
  • Shimizu Goichi
  • Suzuki Chozo
  • Tonouchi Yoshio


+ Other members (There were more than 400 members, but I guess this list is long enough as it is.)

Let’s focus on the most popular characters:

Kondo Isami


– First, the main commander of the Shinsengumi, Kondô Isami.
(For those who don’t know, the family name –Kondo- comes first, followed by the first name –Isami).
In Japanese: 近藤 勇 昌宜 (Kondô Isami Masayoshi), 1834-1868
He was born into a family of farmers in the Musashi province and became the fourth master of the Tennen Rishin Ryu sword style in the Shieikan dôjô. He became commander of the Shinsengumi on September 16, 1863, after killing Serizawa Kamo’s whole group.
In 1867, December, he was shot in the shoulder and nearly died.
One year later, he was forced to surrender and on May 17, was beheaded.
Notorious facts: He was said to be especially noble-minded and he aspired to be a bushi even before being adopted.




– The Vice-commander, Hijikata Toshizo.
In Japanese: 土方歳三義豊(Hijikata Toshizo Yoshitoyo), 1835-1869
He is also a farmer from the Musashi province. He met Kondô at the Tennen Rishin Ryu in 1851 and officially became a pupil eight years later.
The Shinsengumi regulations is said to be his idea.
In 1868 he replaced Kondô, wounded at the time, for battles, and after the commander’s death led the Shisensumi in the last battles against the new government. He died in battle, shot in 1869, and it is said that the Shinsengumi died alongside him.
Notorious facts: He was nicknamed ‘the Demon of the Shinsengumi’. As for Okita Sôji, he was an orphan and was raised by his siblings and mostly his older sister.



– The Captain of the first unit, Okita Sôji.
In Japanese: 沖田 総司 房良 (Okita Souji Kaneyoshi), 1842(?)-1868
He was from a low-ranked bushi family and was raised by his older sister. At the age of ten (more or less), he became one of Kondô’s pupils. He was said to be a real sword prodigy and to have defeated a Kenjutsu teacher at the age of twelve.
He became the head instructor of Shieikan when he was around 19 and was appointed the fifth master of the Tennen Rishin Ryu after Kondô Isami. He joined Rôshigumi in 1863 as well as most of the Shieikan members.
He was said to be the best swordsman of the Shinsengumi (or at least one of the best, alongside Saitô Hajime and Nagakura Shinpachi), but contracted tuberculosis and became seriously ill in 1867. He died the year after, a few months after Kondô’s death.
Funny facts: He was said to be very nice and always joking, except that he had no patience whatsoever with his pupils. Popular belief says that he was already ill from tuberculosis during the Ikedaya Affair, which was proved wrong. 




– The Captain of the second unit, Nagakura Shinpachi.
In Japanese: 永倉新八載之 Nagakura Shinpachi Noriyuki 1839-1915
He was the son of a Bushi family but left to practice Kenjutsu, in the Shieikan once again.
He argued with Kondô and left with Harada Sanosuke to create the Seikyotai, another army fighting against the new Japanese government.
He was one of the few survivors, and changed his name to Sugihara Yoshie. He left a book about Shinsengumi which was discovered in 1998, long after his death (Roshi Bunkyu Hokoku Kiji).
Notorious facts: He is one of the most important sources of knowledge about Shinsengumi. In 1876 he built himself the tombs for Kondô and Hijikata. 


– The Captain of the third unit, Saitô Hajime.
In Japanese: 斎藤 一 (Saitou Hajime) 1844-1915
At the age of ten, he killed a middle-ranking Bushi and was forced to ran away and change his name.
He joined the Mibu Rôshigumi in 1863 and became Captain of the third unit in 1865. He also played a major role as a spy for the Shinsengumi.
He replaced Hijikata as commander of the Shinsengumi while the commander was wounded, and later on decided to stay with the Aizu clan and departed from Hijikata with most part of the army. He stayed with them until the surrender of the Aizu clan in 1868.
He changed his name to Fujita Gorô and was hired by the police department in 1872.
Notorious facts: He died of a stomach ulcer in 1915, the same year as Nagakura Shinpachi. Contrary to him, Saitô didn’t talk much about the Shinsengumi. He changed his name many times, even during his time of fighting for the Shinsengumi

>> I think that’s quite enough for a beginning. Will probably edit this article later, though.

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