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.
It 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…
Years 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.
My 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.