Gohatto stars Beat Takeshi, Asano Tadanobu and a fifteen-year-old Matsuda Ryuhei as the beautiful son of a well-to-do merchant who joins the Shinsen Gumi militia in Kyoto for the “right to kill,” and ends up doing so both by his sword and his good looks. Gohatto explores themes of jealousy, madness and destruction within the context of bushido homoeroticism; not only does this violent love story play out within the bounds of same-sex relationships, but within a single militia.
The plot is focused, unfolding in the span of a quick 100 minutes on a beautiful, moody feudal Kyoto backdrop. Cinematography is effective and even playful at times, with rolling cut scenes reminiscent of Kurosawa. Ryuichi Sakamoto lends a tense, dark, tastefully-done soundtrack that sets the tone perfectly (I actually came to know this film through the soundtrack, being a longtime Sakamoto fan).
The script is well done with time/setting appropriate-language and well-acted by the crew; it’s refreshing to watch a samurai movie in which the actors can convey a sense of their personality and come off as real human players in the story, rather than stiff, stylized time period caricatures.
Homosexual relationships, or dousei ai in Japanese, are the vehicle for this story’s happenings, particularly chosen because of their power within the social context of code-laden samurai society. Beat Takeshi’s Captain Hijikata warns, “A samurai can be undone by the love of men.” As rumours spread within the militia about Sano’s liasons with his multiple suitors amidst ironic, if uncomfortable, jokes and chuckles, grave references are made to previous love affairs that led to the suicides or beheadings of Shinsen Gumi samurai. These love affairs were also homosexual, and Gohatto’s story refrains the theme. As Hijikata cuts a sakura tree in half (sacrilege in Japanese culture? ) at the end of the film, his sword gleaming in the mooonlight, he proclaims, “Sano, you were too beautiful.” The destruction around him ensued because of this young man’s beauty, and his power clearly derives from the fact that he’s a beautiful man. This theme is executed irrespective of the sexual identity of the characters; aside from Sano himself, the rest of the characters who become attracted to him have assumedly been with women before, and likely pursue Sano with no precedent of courting men. The sexuality in this movie is about action and consequences, and the consequences are grave in-so-much as they result from these men’s love for a beautiful boy.
Although director Nagisa Ojima clearly isn’t averse to skirting controversy, which Gohatto garnished much of in addition to countless awards and nominations, Gohatto’s English title is actually a bit misleading; hatto (the preceding go an honorific particle) translates closer to “codes” or “rules.” Although some of the men negate the question of their own predilection toward same-sex sex by explaining that they’re “not of that persuasion,” homosexuality is not taboo in 1860’s samurai Kyoto; indeed they talk and joke of it openly. Early on Tashiro and Sano sit side-by-side as fresh recruits looking up at a banner of the Shinsen Gumi code and lament how strict it is, a harbinger of what’s to come. It is not homosexuality, but rather the frivolous overstepping of the “code” as a result of the passion Sano arouses within the men which leads to destruction.
Gohatto is an unsettling yet riveting film. Just like the heated homosexual encounters at its crux, it is rife with machismo and beauty, dark secrets and ambiguity.
2.26GB | 1h 40m | 988×576 | mkv