Truly subversive or mere cinematic “seasoning,” in the director’s own phrase?
I am the first to admit that Oshima Nagisa’s Gohatto (1999, more literally “Against the Law,” but titillatingly translated for international showings as “Taboo”) is a visually beautiful film. It is, certainly, painfully lovely, achingly gorgeous, exasperatingly lyrical, sumptuously spellbinding, ethereally hypnotic, and, above all, transcendentally sublime. But now that I have exceeded this essay’s quotient of impressionistic predicate adjectives and adverbs, I can begin to talk about Gohatto more honestly, particularly since the traditionalist aesthetic to which the film is in service is in fact its greatest problem. Not at all heartless, I am hardly immune to the eternal, irresistible lyricism of the film’s mono no aware and cherry blossom clichés, but I must steel myself and resist their mesmerizing influence, lest my own aesthetic judgment, and thus my own self-identity, become clichéd as well.
Highly (and erroneously) touted as Oshima’s first film in 13 years,1 since the French-language Max, Mon Amour (1986), Gohatto was supposed to herald the reemergence of a revolutionary. Unfortunately, Gohatto, along with the ghost story Empire of Passion (1978), whose conventionality seemed like a mea culpa for the pornographic illegalities of In The Realm of the Senses (1976), is the most innocuous film of Oshima’s entire career. His comeback turns out to be a sad valedictory, a mellowed, old-age acceptance of the romanticized Mizoguchi aesthetic he and his fellow new-wavers once revolutionarily railed against.
While Oshima’s chamber-piece re-creation of late Tokugawa Japan is as elegant as any Japanese film in recent memory, we must realize that this sort of mannerist poeticism is no longer the exclusive transcendental sphere of elite auteurs such as Mizoguchi, but has long since passed into the banal lexicon of Japanese pop culture. Even the ancient Chinese poets would criticize one another for adhering too stridently to the hackneyed “breeze and moonlight” school of poetry; the breeze-and-moonlight imagery of Gohatto, no matter how perfectly formalized, is now also the stuff of Japanese costume television serials, of manga and anime. While some critics have praised Oshima’s (mildly) “experimental” use of intertitles, which tell us who is secretly enchanted with whom, or disclose plot elements omitted from the film’s diegesis, their quaint effect only exacerbates the film’s conventional lyricism, rather than being disruptive or alienating in the Brechtian sense of Oshima’s new wave period. To be fair, other formerly innovative directors have similarly succumbed to a conventional vernacular – Ichikawa Kon has recently served us with his tasteful version of 47 Ronin (1994), and no less a new-waver than Teshigahara Hiroshi (Woman in the Dunes) had returned to nativist aesthetics with the impossibly beautiful (and admittedly moving) costume films Rikyu (1989) and Basara: The Princess Goh (1992), the latter perhaps one of the most intoxicating (pardon the impressionistic adjective) naturalist films ever made. What Oshima does in Gohatto, however, is to veil the homosexual erotica that was the film’s very selling point, and replace it with the eros of conventionally beautiful cinematography, as the visual seduction of cinematic technology becomes a displacement of the sex that Oshima, for one reason or another, refuses to explicitly show.
Based on the novellas With a Lock of Hair over His Forehead and The Revolt of the Mountain by popular contemporary novelist Shiba Ryotaro (1923-1996), Gohatto‘s plot, though intentionally enigmatic, is fairly simple. In 1865, only three years before the Meiji Restoration would end the feudal system and restore Japanese imperialism, Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda), a beautifully androgynous teenage boy, volunteers for the Shinsengumi militia, a historical troop whose legendary duty it was to quell the rebellions that threatened the Tokugawa Shogunate. To the Debussian plaintiveness of Sakamoto Ryuichi’s score, whose lyricism, like the film’s visuals, I must constitutionally resist if I am to maintain my critical sobriety, Kano inflames the hearts of both his contemporaries, especially handsome Tashiro (Asano Tadanobu), and his superiors, including Captains Hijikata (Kitano Takeshi) and Kondo (Sai Yoichi).2 Thus is the stage set for an elegant exploration of honorable right-wing love where devotion to one’s older partner (or nenja) symbolizes devotion to the paternalism of political hierarchies – the kind of predatory yet militaristically idealized male love director Nakamura Genji had lovingly spoofed in his pink film Beautiful Mystery (1983), in which the rightist doctrines of a paramilitary cult similar to Mishima Yukio’s fascistic “Shield Society” turn out to be merely a pretext for gay lust.
Kano vows not to cut his forelocks, a sign that he is still a wakashu, or the younger object of desire in an intergenerational pair of homosexual lovers.3 Akin to the ancient Greek ideals of pederasty, homosexual love in premodern Japan was not an affair among peers but an institutionalized relationship of mentoring and subordination. Though Tashiro whispers his deadly affections to Kano (“I’ll sleep with you before I die”) as they sleep adjacent to one another, the inhumanly beautiful Kano remains aloof and unattainable. Eventually Kano will succumb to the advances of an older samurai, and around the elusive shadows of desire that surround him a murder-mystery plot will develop. But despite the film’s fixation on mortally erotic longing, Oshima refuses to actually show any sex – leaving the audience in a state of longing too – and instead falls back on the sexual sublimations and diversions that the pornographic straightforwardness of In the Realm of the Senses once tried to refute. For example, Tashiro’s orgasmic desires are deferred to the symbolically semenic blood that geysers from the neck stump of the man mysterious Kano beheads, and a lengthy kendo duel among Tashiro, Kano, and Captain Hijikata will express triangulated strategies of sadomasochistic desire that cannot be expressed in the bedroom. In the single scene where Kano does have sex, we merely see him smiling cherubically beneath bed-sheets before the camera tastefully cuts away to lyrical drops of rain dripping from tiled roofs.
Writing in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Chuck Stephens asserts that Kitano Takeshi’s face is an “excruciatingly mirthful mask” through which Gohatto‘s mysteries are puzzled and refracted. Discussing the history of Japanese homosexual literature, historian Paul Gordon Schalow speaks of another kind of mask, however, the “Western tradition of masking and signaling,” the tactic of sexual diversion and symbolic displacement demanded by a Western homophobia that cannot address homosexuality directly.4 So while Gohatto purports to be fearlessly uncloseted about its homosexuality, its aesthetic tactics of substituting spurting blood for semen, or displacing sexual tensions to the safe spaces of the kendo duels – tactics that will draw praise for their “poeticisms” – are also masks that ironically mystify and fetishize the content of the film’s homosexuality, masks that beg us to look for subtexts and symbolic meanings where none may exist. Indeed, since the film’s very existence is predicated on its openness about homosexuality, there is no gay subtext left for a mask to hide, and these masking techniques divert our attentions to the nothingness behind a mask that (supposedly) no longer has any use. So why divert our attentions at all?
In his 1973 essay “Sex, Cinema, and The Four-and-a-Half Mat Room,” Oshima addressed the problem of text versus subtext in his critique of Japanese roman poruno (romantic-pornographic) films, which, though allegedly subversive, still insisted upon the conventional and bourgeois separation of theme and subject matter, of subtext and text:
[T]he majority of Nikkatsu’s so-called roman poruno films take sex as their subject matter but not as their theme. The themes of their most highly regarded films tend to be something like adolescent rebellion; sex is merely the seasoning. This old method has been used for a long time; it is precisely why these films are attractive to superficial critics and young film buffs.5 (250)
While Oshima may be oversimplifying – there are surely examples of roman poruno whose politics are more than merely adolescent rebellion – he nevertheless sums up the hypocrisy of films that purport to be radical but in fact regurgitate a bourgeois, nonconfrontational strategy of safely burying themes, sexual or political, in subtext.6 But what exactly are the themes of Gohatto? Because we automatically associate Oshima with rebellious sexual politics, even in early “sun tribe” films such as Cruel Story of Youth (1960) or The Sun’s Burial (1961), we may be tempted to equate the sexual unrest of the Shinsengumi compound with the political unrest of the antifeudal rebels they must quell, or posit that Kano’s transgressions of Shinsengumi law mirror the political transgressions of the Westernized Meiji rebels who would soon topple an ever-weakening Tokugawa Shogunate. But these equations seem far too pat, and to suggest, for example, that Kano’s boyish androgyny disrupts samurai orders of masculine power is to ignore the wakashu-nenja relationship that had been an institutionalized part of samurai history.
Rather, I believe that, for all the film’s empty talk of sex and rebellion, Gohatto‘s only claim to subversion is the fact that it actually has not only no sexual or political themes, but precious little sexual or political content, only empty, stylistic fetishes that endlessly misdirect our attention. To put it in Oshima’s terms, Gohatto is all “seasoning,” but rather than it being actual sex, the seasoning is the way sex is lyrically and beguilingly sublimated by “cutting away to the rain” and so forth. I am loath to suggest thatGohatto would be more sexually authentic if it were more pornographically explicit, for “authenticity” would then hinge upon the bargain-basement capitalism that undergirds the marketing and advertising of sex. Nevertheless, it is troubling that Oshima cannot openly face the homosexuality of his own film, and that he is unwilling to cinematically liberate his subject in the way that In the Realm of the Senses removed the digital mask that traditionally blurred (heterosexual) Japanese frontal nudity, even if that film couldn’t be shown in Japan. Instead, we wind up only with a game that presents homosexuality for the self-defeating purpose of not presenting it – but I am inclined to think this game is more cowardly than playfully perverse.
In an earlier 1970 essay, “Mishima Yukio, the Road to Defeat of One Lacking in Political Sense,” written as a sort of ironic elegy to Mishima after his senseless seppuku, Oshima laughs about Mishima’s comment that Oshima doesn’t use “beautiful men and women in [his] films.” “This is the limitation of Mishima’s aesthetic sense,” Oshima muses. “In other words, Mishima’s aesthetic sense was extremely conventional. That is the origin of Mishima’s worship of the spurious and artificial.”7 But are we now supposed to worship the spurious physical beauty of Gohatto just as Mishima worshipped a spurious right-wing politics? Are we now prisoners of Gohatto‘s conventionalized cinematic beauty just as Mishima was a prisoner of his own conventionally muscular body? Is Oshima now following Mishima’s dictate of using “beautiful actors,” and making films for the “superficial critics” he once loathed?
Gohatto is indeed the kind of film that will breathe the hyperbolically oxygenated adjectives and adverbs that issue from critics; if one denies the film the adjectival accolades it expects, its beauties will fade, and it will appear before us nakedly. One of the greatest problems with contemporary film criticism, in fact, is its misuse of language, its Pauline Kael-esque substitution of onanistic subjectivity for artistic criteria that are actually definable, or even understandable. Worse, when critics are genuinely moved by a film, instead of riskily exposing their minds to the reader – which at least Kael did do – they mechanically fall back on impersonal clichés. For example, Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing in the Chicago Reader, concludes that Gohatto, though an obvious anomaly in the Oshima canon, emerges a “triumph of poetic style” as it quotes from Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953) in its final scene.8 Yet, temporarily shunting aside the unsupportable notion that there is even such a monolithic thing as “poetic style,” it is curious that critics never talk about “failures of poetic style.” What, in fact, would a “failure of poetic style” actually look like, and would we be able to recognize a failure of poetic style if we saw one? Would such a failure look like the self-consciously static and overcomposed images of Theo Angelopolous’ Ulysses’ Gaze (1995); the insipidly gauzy gloss of Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985); or the nostalgic, handsome tedium of Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)? If we cannot agree on what is a poetic failure, what good is it to claim something a poetic triumph, if “triumph” is to here mean anything beyond ersatz Mizoguchi-ism, or the regurgitation of a pre-established set of “breeze and moonlight” moods, lighting effects, set decorations, and so forth? Our critical vocabulary has thus become worthless, merely a string of pained descriptions intending to hypnotize (or bully) the reader into agreeing with (or submitting to) the authoritarian critic. Ultimately, the reader learns nothing about film, but only the likes and dislikes of a certain critic, or what a certain critic considers “poetic” or “lyrical” or a “masterpiece.” An insane Antonin Artaud once called for “an end to all ‘masterpieces'” – but must it take a madman to see that our critical language is a painful joke?
Towing the impressionistic line, Chuck Stephens, in his San Francisco Bay Guardian article “Boy Wondering,” uncritically suggests that Gohatto “is less a film about homosexuality and fatal attraction than about the confrontations of youth and age, antique rhythms, unsolvable mysteries, and – much like Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence before it – the looks on Takeshi Kitano’s face.” But Stephens’ glib apologia for Gohatto‘s sexual timidity, or for the possibility that Oshima, once a forward-thinking modernist, is now a purveyor of nostalgia, or a blind merchant of “antique rhythms,” does not excuse the director for employing the stone-faced “mask” of Kitano’s face to keep his gay subject matter at arm’s length. On the other hand, the blank leer of the cultural reference point that is Kitano’s face – half paralyzed from a mid-1990’s motorcycle accident – is suffused with the bi-curiosity intertextually accrued from Kitano’s own Violent Cop (1989), in which his character compliments a criminal businessman’s “good taste” in his choice of male prostitute, as well as his Boiling Point (1990) and Ishii Takashi’s Gonin (1995), in both of which Kitano plays a bisexually predatory yakuza who rapes his misbehaving male underlings. Honestly, I continue to be unsure of what exactly Kitano’s bi-curious interest in predatory homosexuality is, as it is usually played for gawking black comedy that borders on unintentional homophobia (would a straight audience find it “funny” if Kitano had raped a woman in Gonin?). For me, the casting of deadpan comic Kitano, whose talk show in Japan has featured homosexuality as a topic of amusement for bourgeois audiences.9 is ultimately a negation of the antibourgeois conclusion of Oshima’s Marco Ferreri-esque satire Max, Mon Amour (1986). In that film’s final image, the camera zooms out to reveal the happy bestial triangle of Anthony Higgins, Charlotte Rampling, and her gorilla lover as viewed through a prying keyhole representing the intrusive gaze of bourgeois normality, at which point we understand that their ménage a trios will never be socially acceptable. But in Gohatto, Oshima does not humanize his protagonists as he did in Max, and instead opts for an objectifying mysteriousness that presents homosexual stoics for the safe delectation of a straight audience, just as the anxiously androgynous bishonen of Japanese shonen ai (“boys love”) manga populate tales of “forbidden” gay romance directed at audiences of heterosexual women who, still laboring under histories of Japanese misogyny, can fantasize that they are (androgynous) men loving other men.10
In interviews, Oshima has played up the subversive possibilities of his homosexualizing the famous Shinsengumi militia, particularly as the film’s characters are based on real historical figures. On the surface, it may seem subversive to “queer” the nationalist history of the Shinsengumi, and that Oshima might still be daring in his subject matter, if no longer revolutionary in cinematic structure or form as he was in the late 1960s. Indeed, by the politically correct standards of Hollywood, Gohatto may seem superficially progressive, as Hollywood has yet to offer, say, a mainstream gay film that does for the nationalistic Western genre what Gohatto does for the Shinsengumi – the closest we may have come is a semi-underground film such as Andrew Herbert’s gay cowboy odyssey Song of the Loon (1970). The crucial difference, however, is that Japan has a long written history of premodern homosexuality far less blushing than the coy story Oshima has chosen to film. As any sophomore student of Japanese literature could tell you, Japan’s premodern homosexuality flourished not only in the decadent contexts of the pleasure quarters witnessed in Ihara Saikaku’s The Life of a Sensuous Man (1682), but also in the samurai contexts of Saikaku’s more famous collection The Great Mirror of Male Love (1687), where tales such as “Implicated by His Diamond Crest” and “A Sword His Only Momento” speak of literarily idealized brotherhood, sacrifice, and loyalty until death.11
While Saikaku’s samurai tales are admittedly drier than either Life of a Sensuous Man or the whimsical Buddhist monk stories of the second half of The Great Mirror, they are by feudal standards the apotheosis of male love – as opposed to the crude boy prostitutions of the kabuki theater – and they never scrupulously mystify homosexuality in the way thatGohatto does. For example, “A Sword His Only Momento” is not a tale of mysterious sexual treachery but of honorable devotion, and its final line instructs the reader with the moral didacticism, “Young men would do well to follow [selfless eighteen-year-old hero] Katsuya’s example in male love.”12 It must be admitted that unabashed misogyny informs the generic literature of samurai love, however. The homosexual ethos of Saikaku’s samurai tales is that of the onna-girai, or “woman haters,” as opposed to shojin-zuki, or the bisexual, often married “connoisseurs of boys.” But despite the misogyny of The Great Mirror‘s homosexuality,13 its refreshing simplicity and straightforwardness seem downright revelatory when compared to Gohatto, and I wonder why I need Gohatto‘s romantically yet elliptically mysterious – and ironically Western – masking devices when we have had for centuries Saikaku’s simple, unmasked expressions of male love.
Because I have long admired Oshima, I am wary of holding him to a single ideological standard – human beings are self-contradictory creatures, and even in the ’60s Oshima may have harbored a secret fondness for nativist aesthetics, even as he openly declared his hatred of Kurosawa and all other Japanese filmmakers who regressively romanticized feudalism. A perverse optimist might even say Oshima is pulling our leg, that Gohatto‘s mock Mizoguchi-ism is a glorious parody or put-on, and that the film’s sexual mildness is an ironic joke meant to surprise those expecting something revolutionary.14 But even if this were true, the parody would be so inscrutable that it would become yet another mysterious mask to peel away, and, more simply, one would have to wonder why Oshima waited until the end of his career to embark on such a parody. So despite Gohatto‘s visual beauty, the image that keeps returning to me is the insurrectionary ending of one of Oshima’s most radical films, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969). As violent student riots overtake the streets, we see an anonymous hand forcibly turn ahead the hands of a clock that has figured prominently throughout the film – the clock, of course, represents modernist progress, and the hand is Oshima’s. While modernism may no longer be in vogue, and while revolutionary leftist filmmaking may have gone the way of the dodo, I cannot help but wonder if the forward-thinking clock has now been turned back to midnight, and whether Oshima’s once insurrectionary hand has been reduced from antagonism to onanism.
Note: Japanese names in the text are presented in Japanese order: surname first, given name last.
- The Western press releases notwithstanding, Gohatto is not Oshima’s first film in 13 years; in 1994, he directed the television documentary 100 Years of Japanese Cinema. [↩]
- Hijikata Toshizo and Kondo Isami were indeed the historical leaders of the Shinsengumi, and Japanese audiences weaned on Shinsengumi-themed manga would already be familiar with this cast of characters. [↩]
- At eighteen or nineteen years of age, the wakashu undergoes a hairdressing ritual – the forelocks are cut off – marking his passage into adulthood. However, in the film it seems that Kano would continue being a passive object of desire even if he did cut off his forelocks. Elsewhere, the idea of prolonged innocence is common in Japanese erotica – the contemporary equivalent of retaining one’s feudal forelocks would be the penchant in Japanese porn for characters well into their twenties to continue wearing school uniforms. [↩]
- Ihara Saikaku. The Great Mirror of Male Love. Introduction and trans. Paul Gordon Schalow. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990. p. 5. Schalow’s comments are made in reference to Mishima Yukio’s novel Confessions of a Mask (1949). [↩]
- Oshima, Nagisa. Cinema, Censorship, and the State: The Writings of Nagisa Oshima. Ed. Annette Michaelson, trans. Dawn Lawson. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992. [↩]
- Oshima’s brief essay seems to signify the emergence of the pornographic ideas that would inform his later In the Realm of the Senses (1976). It is useful to compare In the Realm to Tanaka Noburo’s more conventional Nikkatsu pink film The Abe Sada Story (Jitsuroku Abe Sada, 1975), made a year before Oshima’s film, and telling more or less the same true story. Though there are striking similarities between the two films – both even include paranoid shots of militaristic troops circa 1936, the year of an infamous coup attempt by right-wing fanatics – Tanaka’s film clearly emphasizes a conservative, heteronormative gaze, and contains not even partial male nudity. Furthermore, in Tanaka’s film, Abe Sada is not presented as a folk heroine claiming her own pleasure but as a desperate madwoman, ashamed of her past as a prostitute, and wracked with homicidal jealousies. Here, Oshima’s formulation does seem to be correct – in Tanaka’s film, sex is merely the “seasoning” for a psychoanalytic story, while in his own version liberating sex is the story. [↩]
- Ibid. Cinema, Censorship, and the State. p. 225. [↩]
- Even Mizoguchi’s literary source, the anthology Ugetsu monogatari (1776), is itself not entirely heterosexual. One if its ghost tales, “The Blue Cowl,” mordantly tells of a cannibalistic monk who devours the succulent corpse of the teenage boy with whom he was smitten. [↩]
- In his essay, “Obscenity and Homosexual Depiction in Japan,” Udo Helms describes a comedy sketch on Kitano’s talk show Koko ga hen da yo Nihonjin (“That’s Weird, Mr. Japanese”) in which some vicious Westerners antagonize a group of passive Japanese homosexuals. While it is true that in the early twentieth century Japan adopted European homophobia as part and parcel of modernity, the ridiculous implication of this comedy skit is that today homophobia is a Western problem, and that homophobia would not be practiced by the Japanese. [↩]
- Indeed, the most popular male homoerotic manga in Japan are written by and for straight women. On the one hand, it may be problematic to call these male homoerotic fantasies “inauthentic” by dint of their audience, because then we might have to say, for example, that a lesbian audience would be unable to have an “authentic” experience of a heterosexual romance. On the other hand, that these stories are their own commercialized genre does seem to simultaneously mystify and trivialize (male) homosexuality. [↩]
- Saikaku’s samurai stories were aimed at merchant-class audiences, just as Shiba Ryotaro’s contemporary stories were aimed at Japan’s modern middle class. So while homosexuality was indeed institutionally practiced among the samurai, the idealization of samurai love is partly a middle-class literary construction. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 96. Most of Saikaku’s samurai stories are similarly didactic, a literary trope meant to appease his homosexual audience. [↩]
- Although examples of this misogyny are legion, as a literary device it seems transparent and contrived. For example, the ending of “Love: The Contest Between Two Forces” wonders why men “waste . . . vast quantities of gold and silver on . . . myriad women, when the only pleasure and excitement is to be found in male love.” See Schalow, p. 56. [↩]
- I am disinclined to believe the absence of explicit sex in Gohatto is meant to be ironic, however, as Oshima was equally coy in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), his other “homosexual” film. Still, I am sure there must be some critics who will desperately argue that Gohatto must be a kind of ironic, straight-faced parody of Mizoguchi. [↩]