Welcome to the Galactic Theater, where we'll explore the works of master manipulators of light waves, examine the themes brought to play, and critique the final products of months of hard work.
This review does not represent the opinions of the general public. It reflects my personal thoughts and opinions on the movie.
That said, on to the review!
Recruitment for the Shinsengumi has changed as the quality of the recruits faltered. Now, after a series of tests at swordsmanship, the Shinsengumi have chosen two to join their ranks: Kano Sozaburo and Tashiro Hyozo. While normally the addition of two new samurai would pass without remark, a problem arises that will cause chaos and upheaval in the ranks: the young man, Kano, is too beautiful for words, and has subsequently caused many men in his unit to fall in love with him. First to profess his love is the recruit who joined with him, Tashiro, who even tries to slip beneath Kano's covers shortly after they join up, but a knife to his throat stops that...for now. Meanwhile, Kano has also caught the attention of the commander...and the captain...and several of the other samurai. Of course, with so many men in love with Kano, it is inevitable that something will happen between the rivals for his affections...and it does.
The entire militia believes that Tashiro and Kano are lovers, and neither man denies or acknowledges the truth. Despite this, Kano has taken one lover, Yuzawa Tojiro, following a disastrous fencing match during which enemies derided the quality of the Shinsengumi's soldiers. Later, after Kano is badly wounded while avenging the insult to the Shinsengumi, it is Tashiro who vocally expresses his concern, something that angers Yuzawa. Later, after making love to Kano yet again but receiving no words of affection in return, Yuzawa vows to kill...someone. Shortly after, he is attacked from behind and slain.
Things become even more complicated. The captain of the milita, Hijikata Toshizo, has his own attraction to Kano to deal with, but hoping to reduce some of the problems in the squad, he orders one of his subordinates, Yamazaki Jo, to introduce Kano to a prostitute and the pleasures of the entertainment district. This takes a while to implement and doesn't ever reach full fruition, but it lasts long enough for someone to attack Yamazaki, someone who inadvertantly leaves a dagger behind to identify him. While the evidence points to one person who admittedly has cause enough to kill, is he really the true culprit? Or is there something else going on in the Shinsengumi that defies clear explanation?
Well, in her continuing--but fortunately fading--determination to disgruntle me my anime watching partner dared me to go and see Gohatto (English title "Taboo") when it played during the Hawaii International Film Festival. And I, in my continuing--and steadily increasing--stubborness to irritate her to no end, agreed to go. So I went, and I got to see this interesting movie from Japan whose subject matter, while not something you'd expect to necessarily come out of Japan, is still nowhere near as disturbing as some of the scenes from HBO's Oz, to which I have become numb anyway. But to be brief, I also went because I enjoy watching samurai programs and was curious how the director was going to introduce such a delicate subject into a culture which (though this may be stereotypical) is well-known for its strict morals and proper practices. And I, in my continuing--and utterly unwavering--open-mindedness, enjoyed myself immensely.
First of all, this was not pornography imported from Japan: did you think the HIFF would show it if it was? As a matter of fact, I saw practically no flesh--male or female--whatsoever, or at least nothing that Westerners would necessarily consider scandalous, and the one love scene that the audience viewed took place under the covers, with only Yuzawa's chest bared to light while Kano remained robed. If anything, I have a feeling Japanese audiences would have found the prostitue selected for Kano more scandalous: despite being fully clothed in what had to be six or seven layers of kimono, her neck and a considerable expanse of back just below it were in plain sight.
Now, the cast consisted of Japanese actors entirely unknown to me, but that isn't so bad, considering that I can't read kanji and they may have been on some of the Japanese movies I watch. Regardless of this, however, I thought the cast was excellent, and the actors did a terrific job of presenting a subject which was probably more disturbing to them than it would have been to Western actors. Even more amazing to me was how they managed to deliver their lines with completely straight faces. Talk about professionalism! On the other hand, since I wasn't paying attention necessarily to the dialogue (and don't know enough Japanese to understand even if I had), the humor to those parts of the movie may have come from the subtitles which, to my mind, seemed rather dry and lacking in emotion. For all I know or could tell, the dialogues were completely serious with only a modicum of humor intended.
I'm sure some of you want to know more about Kano. Well, to be honest, I found him rather unsettling. There's a degree of calm composure around him at all times, whether he's carrying out a ritual execution or enduring the advances of the other men or even being claimed by his lover. The actor who plays him, Matsuda Ryuhei, does a good job of being both masculine and feminine at the same time, whether it's in the way he parries and thrusts with the wooden practice swords, or pouring sake for Yuzawa, or anything else. Matsuda is, also, rather androgynous and therefore suitable for this role. That quality, however, may have been due to the decidedly different hairstyle that he sports throughout the movie (a boy's locks rather than a man's shorter hair) and the shadows around his eyes that may have been an affectation or natural state for Kano. There's also this thing he does with his lips that makes him seem pouty. His smiles, unfortunately, seem rather weak and unnatural, but this again may have been in character. Given the repressive culture, wherein expression of emotion was mostly looked down upon, a broader, more forceful smile would have been positively obscene and completely unsuitable to the movie's chronological setting.
On the other hand, I think I would have preferred more emotion overall. Or maybe not emotion but animation. There was practically no emotion displayed except for anger. Humor, happiness, joy, amusement...all these things passed with only slight twitches or tics. Same thing for worry, concern, and thoughtfulness. Only anger found a real vent here and there. There were some exceptions of course. But on the whole, while most of the men in the Shinsengumi (those that had the "leaning," as it is referred to in the subtitles at least) were drawn to Kano, I think that I--if I shared there leaning--would probably be more fascinated and drawn in by Lieutenant Okita Soji, played by Takeda Shinji (who I swear I've seen somewhere before in one of my Japanese programs). Okita is more expressive in his humor, and when he smiles (which is a constant, refreshing escape from the other characters' stone faces) he becomes very good-looking. Towards the ending he has a dialogue with Hijikata about a story he read that describes the love between a scholar and a samurai (the subtitle referred to it as A Vow Between Two Men or something like that). There was something so poetic and beautiful about it that...well, words won't describe it.
This movie wasn't without its problems, of course. Given that it was subtitled, I have no way of knowing if everything was translated correctly or if the cultural background necessary to understand the context of the age was lacking. As a result, I probably missed a lot of unexplained references that the subtitles didn't--or couldn't--get across. The movie also forces the viewer to think, something which didn't necessarily bother me while I watched it, but which is now giving me a headache--although that might be a holdover from being in the movie theater to begin with. The movie also left a lot of questions unanswered, which isn't necessarily a bad thing but does leave a sense of dissatisfaction and incompletion in the viewer's mind. We never really found out who killed Yuzawa, or who attacked Yamazaki. I guess it's all right, though.
Gohatto was definitely a new experience for me, whose novelty unfortunately clashed with my memories of how much I hate going into movie theaters: people talking around you during the film, cellular phones and pagers going off...you get the picture. However, I thorouhgly enjoyed the movie, and I'm definitely going to watch and wait to see if it comes out on video!
Interested in buying this video? Unfortunately, it isn't available...yet. It may become available next year, but there are no guarantees. Your best bet would be to find out if it is playing at an academic theater or in a film festival somewhere. In the meantime, you can visit the Stellar Video Store for other titles.
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