Oshima Nagisa’s 1999 film Gohatto is about desire and suspicion within the ranks of the Shinsengumi during the bakumatsu period. The story follows a love triangle between pale-skinned beauty Kano Sozaburo (Matsuda Ryuhei) and Tashiro Hyozo (Asano Tadanobu) but is told mostly through the perspective of Captain Hijikata, played by Kitano Takeshi. Set in 1865, during the twilight of the Shinsengumi and Tokugawa shogunate (bakufu), the film is a nostalgic love letter to the last days of feudal Japan, an examination of the destructive effects of desire within the brotherhood of the Shinsengumi, and an allegorical criticism of the efforts of modern Japanese society to repress the desires of the individual for the sake of the majority. As a director, Oshima commonly uses famous historical incidents and settings as tools to criticize and examine modern society. In this light, Gohatto has much in common with its predecessor In The Realm of the Senses.
Prior to its release, Gohatto garnered massive media attention. It was Oshima’s first film in 13 years and revolved around the highly controversial practice of homosexuality (shūdō: the way of youths) among the samurai class. However, it was poorly received by critics, most of whom considered it inferior to many of Oshima’s previous works. Despite its lukewarm reception, Gohatto is a beautiful film that showcases some of Japan’s finest actors (Takeshi, Asano) and addresses a very complex subject with surprising grace. No doubt, the most prevalent theme of the film is the eroticism naturally associated with close-knit military environments. This theme is visually reinforced by the skillfully shot scenes within the Shinsengumi dormitories at night. Men sleep on closely placed futons, legs and covers strewn about and touching each other, moving restlessly in their sleep. Oshima’s set designs (many contained within studios) and cinematography are reminiscent of the works of Kurosawa and visually connect Gohatto to the epic samurai films of the 1960s.
Gohatto also avoids falling into a cliché common to films revolving around homosexuality. The love triangle revolves around Kano Sozaburo, played by the naturally effeminate Matsuda Ryuhei, and Oshima could have easily portrayed his character as weak, passive and overly effete. On the contrary, Kano is a skilled swordsman and is quite capable of defending himself from unwanted sexual advances. The appeal of shūdō was found not in homosexuality, per se, but of the beautiful impermanence of youth embodied by young boys on the cusp of manhood. Initially, the Shinsengumi leaders are willing to overlook Kano’s relationships as long as they do not become disruptive within the social hierarchy of the group. Oshima Nagisa captures this attitude and creates the image of an oppressive military environment by displaying the rules of the Shinsengumi (“Code of Conduct”) over a black screen after the first scene of the film. One of the rules is that members of the Shinsengumi are not to engage in private fights or vendettas (such as lovers’ quarrels). As the bakufu and the Shinsengumi came under increased pressure from internal and external threats, they became less likely to tolerate such disruptive behavior. The enigmatic Kano is portrayed as a somewhat malignant force within the Shinsengumi and his violations of etiquette mark him as a potentially subversive figure. Ultimately, it is this disruption that forces Captain Hijikata and other Shinsengumi leaders to eliminate him.
While Gohatto gets many things right, it is clear that historical accuracy was not the primary concern of the director. Despite its potentially disruptive qualities, shūdō was still considered one of the purest forms of human bonding during this period of time. In contrast, the characters in Gohatto devote a large amount of their time either denying that they follow ‘that way’ (sono michi) or trying to figure out if another Shinsengumi member ‘leans that way.’ Given the largely positive connotations associated with shūdō, it is unlikely that they would have been so concerned about such practices. Furthermore, shūdō was not viewed as an ‘either/or’ sexual identity, as we see homosexuality and heterosexuality today, but as one of the several ways of sexuality and interpersonal relationships that an individual could choose follow. The characters in Gohatto refer to male-male relations a very modern context – as a sexual identity that is more-or-less fixed. Though Gohatto is fairly accurate in representing certain aspects of life in Japan during the mid-19th century, its characters and its meaning are ultimately modern and it contains a message not about the past but about the present. Perhaps it is impossible to separate our view of the past from our modern preoccupations, but as a film Gohatto has more to say about modern society and modern interpretations of sexuality than those of Tokugawa samurai.