The “taboo” at the center of Japanese New Wave director Nagisa Oshima’s first feature in 14 years is homosexuality — which is frowned upon in the film’s strict setting of a 19th Century samurai training facility. Inciting passions of “that leaning” (as it is so discreetly put in the film) is Sozaburo Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda), who, along with Hyozo Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano), is a new recruit into the Shinsengumi militia. A skilled warrior, Kano is undeniably a force to be reckoned with when wielding a sword, but even more dangerous is his unabashedly effeminate appearance — the cause for much psychosexual intimidation for enemies and would-be lovers alike. As the stern captain (Beat Takeshi) is quick to conclude, Kano’s shameless ways can only lead to trouble.
“Gohatto” is surprising in a couple of respects. First, the frank matter-of-factness with which the issue of homosexuality is addressed is a bit disarming, considering the setting and time period. But more shocking still is how a film that provocatively entwines the violent world of samurai with forbidden eroticism can end up so bloodless in a figurative sense. Oshima tells the story with the same cold detachment of the captain character; and his actors are called on to approach their roles with matching opaqueness.
With no passionate “leaning” (yes, bad pun intended) of any kind, little seems at stake in the film’s swordfight scenes, however technically precise they are. Ultimately, it’s difficult to really care how this pretty but distant (not unlike the Kano character) picture turns out — a feeling that will only be intensified by the maddeningly anticlimactic conclusion.