This intriguingly beautiful film is kind of like a talky Japanese Beau Travail with its masculine beauty and military themes. We’re in 1865 Kyoto, at the end of the Shogun era when the Shinsen Militia was protecting the capital. In the Shinsen school, we meet two new recruit samurai, both slightly outside the norm: the 18-year-old Kano (Matsuda) is not only from a wealthy family but also is startlingly beautiful, while the earthy Tashiro (Asano) is from a poor farming family. Soon rumors fill the school that the two are lovers, which doesn’t bother the school leader (Takeshi) until it starts affecting their fighting skills. But almost everyone else is in love with Kano as well. And then there’s a murder–is it jealous rage or a sneak attack from anti-Shinsen rebels?
Quiet and almost plaintive, the film gently recreates the period with impeccable detail. It looks fantastic, and the characters come to life with real drama and humour. Visually, everything is muted browns and greys interrupted by a gush of blood or a vivid crimson-gowned geisha. And the gays-in-the-military debate gets a subtle yet thorough working over without any heavy moralising. The whole thing builds quietly and steadily to a high noon duel that reveals the last of the plot’s secrets. While increasingly interesting, the film is oddly constructed with an internal monologue narration plus extensive written titles to tell us everything that’s going on. Both are unnecessary, so they must have some stylistic purpose that’s lost on Western audiences. The acting is also uneven; most are very good, especially Takeshi with his trademark wry understatement, but Matsuda is oddly expressionless at the film’s center. As a result, the big climax leaves us rather cold and perplexed. Yes, it’s lovely, but what’s it all about really?