Gohatto (aka Taboo, 1999) Movie Review

“Gay Samurai? Never seen that before.”

The above are my words, and probably the words of countless people upon discovering “Gohatto” (aka “Taboo”), a tale of homosexuality within a Samurai training camp during Japan ‘s Shogun era.

The plotting is minimal, so much so that at times you wonder if something is actually going to happen. The film boils down to a lot of interpersonal conflicts within the camp, all centred around young Samurai Sozaburo Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda), the object of everyone’s desires. The conflicts and difficulties come out during training and sparring sessions that exposes the homosexual nature of a number of the students to stern leader Toshizo Hijikata (Takeshi Kitano, “Blood and Bones”), who can choose to intervene or let the Samurai in question go on with their own path.

“Gohatto” is a film for those with patience. A lot of patience. It is purposely slow in terms of storytelling and development, allowing the characters to unfold gradually in front of our eyes. This is the case for a lot of Japanese films (most notably Takashi Miike’s “Audition”) and, whilst not necessarily a bad thing, is certainly enough to turn away a large number of potential viewers. Even for those with more patience, “Gohatto” can still be a little frustrating, if it were not for the fact that the whole thing is so well acted.

Takeshi Kitano is brilliant as always, his Shakespearian inspired soliloquy at the end of the film being a high point . Young Ryuhei Matsuda is equally good as the effeminate and withdrawn Kano , and convinces with his character’s complexity. The rest of the supporting cast are also up to the task, in particular Shinji Takeda as Soji Okita, who is debatably the only actual gay man in the camp.

Where “Gohatto” falls short is that it fails to fulfil its own premise. Despite my initial interest in the existence of gay Samurai, what is shown onscreen is disappointing, with the film’s only gay sex scene being short and unrealistic. As well, if you’re expecting a lot of lightening-quick swordplay, the kind usually found in movies about the Samurai, you’ll be disappointed. The film’s fights consist of either sparring in training using wooden swords, or actual combat that are over in seconds.

The ending attempts to leave you with an afterthought (director Nagisa Oshima clearly wants you to discuss and interpret his film), yet there is a difference between leaving you with an afterthought and leaving you with unanswered questions. Suffice to say “Gohatto” leaves you with the latter.

Besides the beautiful scenery and interesting premise, “Gohatto” is a good example of how the Japanese like it slow. The film won’t change your life, but it does give you something to mull over, and is an aesthetically Japanese experience as you’ll likely to find anywhere.

Nagisa Oshima (director) / Nagisa Oshima, Ryotaro Shiba (screenplay)
CAST: Takeshi Kitano …. Toshizo Hijikata
Ryuhei Matsuda …. Sozaburo Kano
Shinji Takeda …. Soji Okita
Tadanobu Asano …. Hyozo Tashiro

Buy Gohatto aka Taboo on DVD