It starts out like any other samurai drama, with the story of two new recruits to the Shinsengumi (a mid-19th century government death squad, today generally portrayed as heroes in popular culture). After a while, though, it turns into an unrequited gay love polygon. With killing. Imagine the Japanese equivalent of a Hollywood cowboy drama that portrays the rough, tough, gritty Wild West as also rampantly homosexual. (It was, of course, for the same reason that there's traditionally been lots of gay sex in prison and in the navy. I've long wanted to see a film that mentions this.)
Anyway, Tomoko got me Gohatto for my birthday because it had been one of the high-profile Japanese films of 1999 and because the Japanese DVD has English subtitles. (Better safe than sorry. This also let Dad watch it with us.) Tomoko hadn't actually seen it herself, but it had got people talking back in the day and she was expecting it to be good. This is sexually permissive Japan we're talking about and no one had cared that the film was showing homosexuality in the Shinsengumi, but it's still an attention-grabbing approach that got people talking.
It had also been the first Nagisa Oshima film in thirteen years. (In fact it would also be his last before his death in 2013. He'd had a stroke in 1996 and would have more.) Oshima's a name. His other films include In the Realm of the Senses (still unavailable uncensored in Japan because of the explicit sex scenes) and Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. He was a challenger of Japanese social assumptions, often involving sex, and Gohatto fits into his body of work very well.
Tomoko didn't like this film. She thinks it's "shou mo nai", which you can imagine as a combination of "trivial" and "good for nothing". (It's certainly true that these people are pretty silly and that murdering your colleagues as an expression of your gay love could be called an overreaction.) She also disliked Oshima's use and abuse of wipes and fades.
Dad, being less acquainted than Tomoko and me with Japanese permissiveness, was surprised by all the gay. It would certainly be hard to imagine a Hollywood cowboy equivalent of this film, which is that thought experiment I suggested earlier in this review. I think he liked the film.
Me, I think the idea of the film is quite funny, but that Tomoko's assessment of it isn't without weight. Some of it plays out like a samurai sitcom, e.g. the bit about trying to cure Kano's homosexuality by taking him to a prostitute. The cast includes a fair few well-known comedians, curiously. It's certainly more watchable than a conventional samurai drama. (I struggled to stay awake during the early and mostly gay-free first act of the film, which is just the usual stuff about assassinations, military operations, etc. The homosexuality woke me up again.)
It also ends interestingly (i.e. without unambiguous resolution) and is perhaps fatally damaged by a wooden performance by Ryuhei Matsuda, then a 15-year-old unknown.
Most of the acting is good, mind you. Takeshi Kitano on his own brings more personality and immediacy than you'll get from the entire cast of most samurai films. The busy and popular but normally wooden Tadanobu Asano astonished me by being good as well and in fact won Best Supporting Actor from the 2000 Hochi Film Awards for this role. The end credits are full of names I recognised (Tomorowo Taguchi, Susumu Terajima, etc.), including amusingly someone Tomoko calls the Wedding Idiot. (I'll explain later.) I think the film's subject matter freed up the cast, pushing them out of the usual samurai comfort zone of "I follow bushido, I do not have emotions or react to things". I liked them. They're doing a good job. This is part of what makes the film more watchable, I think.
Unfortunately there's also Matsuda, as a pretty boy and object of near-universal lust. He looks and sounds right in the role, mind you. He uses a voice like a girl's. You can believe in the reactions he elicits, while his non-acting is convincing given his chosen characterisation (responds emotionlessly to all attempts at conversation, appears to be trying to be a robot that obeys orders). He's a blank slate and I think it's quite likely that this is what Oshima had been aiming for. However I think this was a bad decision for the story, which needed Matsuda to be suggesting at least the possibility of something under that shell, be it twisted love, hatred, passion or anything else. This is a pretty messed up story, underneath. If the film doesn't successfully sell the darkness and extremes of what human sexuality can do to a man, then it's just going to come across as trivial and/or silly... which I think it does, to some extent. Mileage will vary on this, though.
Apart from anything else, Matsuda's character is also supposed to be an experienced killer. The lack of anything much going on underneath his performance means that we don't take that side of him seriously either. There's nothing scary or threatening about him as a person, except on a literal level, i.e. he's killed with a sword and has no qualms about using it.
It includes some famous locations, by the way. It's impressive that they got permission to shoot there.
(Oh, and the Wedding Idiot... she's a celebrity whose hobby is having weddings. She's not actually getting remarried in them. It's the same husband each time. She just enjoyed her wedding day so much that she keeps throwing the full ceremony and reception again and again. In this film, she's the prostitute with no dialogue who walks down a corridor as if she's a hot air balloon tied to a whale. That outfit and walk is historically authentic.)
This is a more interesting film to think about than to watch, I think. If someone told you about it, you'd think it sounded fascinating. The conflicts being stirred up are quite complicated and not what a Western audience might assume. The Shinsengumi aren't being soft-pedalled for a modern sensibility or made to seem heroic, so for instance we're reminded that if a commanding officer died in battle, his men were expected to commit suicide in order to follow him unto death. It's also unclear that the narrative uncovered at the end is necessarily what had happened (although it probably was), while there's significant backstory and character motivations that we never learn. Who had Matsuda previously killed and why? What's the hair vow? (We can speculate about the latter, though.)
I'd love to see this film remade. I think you could make something terrifying and intense out of it, or alternatively you could probably ramp up the comedy, semi-parody and social commentary even further into black comedy. As it stands, though, it's an interesting what-if. It's nearly there. I admire a lot about it, but it's clearly not the best possible version of itself.