The conceit of the film is that an exceptionally pretty boy named Kano Sozaburo joins a samurai military unit towards the end of the Shogunate (the politics of this era play a minor, but substantive role in the story). Many of the men become infatuated with him, and their jealousy starts to tear the unit apart until a bloody episode that ends the film. Beat Takeshi stars as the unit’s second-in-command Hijikata Toshizo, who is the one that has to deal with the problems Kano creates. These are many, as Kano seems to catch absolutely everyone’s eye, including the commander, at least one lieutenant, and even perhaps Hijikata himself.
This is not the best movie I’ve ever seen by any standard. The plot seems to come and go at times, and the tension builds only unevenly towards the final confrontation. While the movie centers on Kano little is done to give the viewer a real handle on his character. He blows hot and cold, and Matsuda Ryuhei at times just doesn’t seem equal to his task. Takeshi does more with less; Hijikata is much easier to grasp, even though he has his own set of unresolved questions. In the end the viewer is left to resolve most of the movie’s central mysteries.
The directing is very interesting. Oshima Nagisa’s camera tries to let action speak for itself, which works splendidly in some scenes (Kano’s embarrassing kendo bout against his lover) and not so well in others (an extended entrance by a geisha). As is often the case, color features prominently in the film (Kano’s frequent wearing of white against the black of the militia’s livery), but it bears thinking about what the colors mean in the cultural context.
Some cultural context may also be needed for westerners watching the film. An American might find it strange that all these men are attracted to Kano, who seems by our standards pale and rather pinched. The seeming lack of romance in the love scenes (there is one sex scene, but barely anything is shown) may also seem a little odd. These aren’t flaws but rather important components of the historical and cultural setting, ultimately helping to build a fairly accurate picture of this world.
Taboo isn’t easy to understand and just isn’t for some people. I don’t mean this pejoratively; you aren’t a better person if it is for you. It’s the strangest case ever made against gays in the military — beware, all the straight men might become infatuated! And yet, though some of the plot seems totally alien, it works, even the slightly strained ending. Beat Takeshi is to be credited for this, as he grounds a film that could have easily flown off into space. Sakagami Jiro, Takeda Shinji, and a few others in the supporting cast also do great work, propping up (in my opinion) Matsuda, who just doesn’t seem to have quite enough poison in his eyes for this role. If you think a gay samurai mystery art film might be for you, then try to get your hands on it, at least for a rental.
I also watched Hot Fuzz; all you need to know about this film is that it is very funny and you should rent it.