90s Far East Bracket: Gohatto (Taboo, 1999)

The second film in my third match-up in the second round of the 90s Far East Bracket is all about whether you lean this way or that!

Written By: Nagisa Ôshima
Directed By: Nagisa Ôshima

It doesn’t matter what sexual orientation Sozaburo Kano prefers in Gohatto, the movie isn’t about him or what he wants. Nagisa Ôshima has crafted a film that is about those around Kano and how they react to him. Kano’s presence has an immediate impact on his fellow samurai as well as his superiors, in mostly negative ways actually. The movie drifts along, and I mean drift in a positive way, showing various reactions to this new effeminate member of the Shinsengumi militia. This is their story, this is the story of how they choose to take in Kano and how they let Kano define their way of life and their code. Those expecting a ponderous take on homosexuality can look elsewhere, because while homosexuality plays a part in Gohatto it is not the main thrust, no pun intended, of the story.

However, maybe a tale focused more on one singular subject would have helped Gohatto. This is a tendril like film, by tackling the code that the militia, and by extension most Japanese men of the time period of the film, lived by it takes on too much at once. Gohatto is layered, but I found it to be too layered, think of a seven tier wedding cake where the first layer is only a quarter of the way finished, and the second layer is only halfway finished, and so on. Mr. Ôshima needed to reign in Gohatto a bit, to emphasis more about the code or simply to make sure that each story thread, or bit of narrative, that he wanted to hit carried the impact it should have. I know it sounds weird to ever accuse a movie of being too layered, but sometimes a movie can take on too much. I left Gohatto with the distinct impression that if a little bit of something had been stripped away the film would have been even better.

Going back to the wedding cake idea, one thing you can not say about Gohatto is that it isn’t a beautiful wedding cake. The movie starts off with vista like images of Japan and slowly it gets tighter and tighter in its visuals until finally it is focusing only on the characters in a dream like backdrop. That’s why for as much as Gohatto may be trying to pry one too many cookies from that jar, it still works for the most part. You can watch Takeshi Kitano cut down a blossom tree and see in his face that Kano has brought out the faults in the samurai that is leading to their demise. As I watched Gohatto I was struck by how easily Mr. Ôshima was able to get across his core idea of reactions, even amidst the sprawling tendrils of the code.

It’s tough for me not give Gohatto a ringing endorsement. It is a splendid looking picture, while the score is eerie and enhances the artistry in the images. Most of all, when the final dailies are looked at I know that Mr. Ôshima accomplished his main task of showing these men react to Kano. But, at the same time I can’t help but ask why a character like Hyozo Tashiro was on screen a lot in the beginning, only to disappear for about forty minutes and then reappear for the climactic moments. Things such as that give Gohatto the air of a film that doesn’t quite know what to do with its characters in the service of its imagery and artistry.

It all goes back to that wedding cake for me. Gohatto sure as heck looks good and it is a filling meal, but it’s an unfinished cake and it’s likely there could have been a better cake made out of its ingredients. Maybe I’m crazy, maybe it is all about the reactions Mr. Ôshima is able to get from his cast and my wedding cake idea is just stupid. Either way, I didn’t enjoy Gohatto as much as I know I should have, and that’s why it’s a film I am comfortable calling good, but not great.

Rating:

***

Cheers,
Bill

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