[Written for Mr. Showbiz]
“Have you ever killed a man? … Have you ever made love?” It’s tempting to call this latest film by Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses, Max Mon Amour) a meditation on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gays in the military — except that in Kyoto’s Shinsengumi militia in 1865 it almost seems that every third warrior “leans that way,” with at least half the rest precariously susceptible to feeling the same, or fearing that they might start feeling the same, at any moment. There doesn’t appear to be notable scorn for the practice, but veterans like Captain Hijikata (Takeshi Kitano) worry that excessive fascination with a pretty boy like the new kid, Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda), can mess up morale and, er, take the edge off military preparedness.
Like most Oshima films of my acquaintance, Gohatto is often mystifying from moment to moment: just where are we going and why are we taking this route? But there’s definitely a wry point of view, reinforced by occasional absurdist intertitles and by the presence of Beat Takeshi, who made his screen debut in Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence — an earlier, WWII-framed consideration of what we might term hysterical machismo. I’m not sure what, exactly, happens in the final ten minutes, but it’s astonishing — especially the final image, a cinematic epiphany if ever there was one, and a shot that literally took my breath away. The darkly handsome cinematography is by Toyomichi Kurita, who lensed Trouble in Mind and several others for Alan Rudolph.