A Western reviewer concluded that this Oshima Nagisa film set in 19th century Japan could not possibly be an accurate portrayal of Japanese attitudes towards homosexuality, simply because most of the Japanese characters were not homophobic. Had he done his research into Japanese culture of the Tokugawa era and earlier, he would have found that male bisexuality was socially acceptable and well-represented in public life.
BUt of course, some Westerners may hold the baseless stereotype a Japan that was more sexually liberal than Europe cannot possibly exist in any time period, so any 'open-minded' attitudes displayed by non-whites must be completely figments of imagination and have no basis in history.
Anyway, enough about uninformed reviews and more on the film itself:
Gohatto is a beautifully filmed 1999 Japanese martial arts feature directed by Oshima Nagisa. Set in 19th century Japan, Gohatto's storyline follows the web of intrigue which engulfs the mighty Shinsengumi militia after the arrival of an androgynous new recruit Kano Sozaburo.
Another recruit, Tashiro Hyozo, falls in love with Sozaburo. It is worth noting that Tashiro's assumption on Sozaburo's sexual orientation (in the absence of any explicit indicators) is "gay until proven otherwise". This is directly opposite to today's Westernized assumptions on an individual's sexuality - "straight until proven otherwise".
The character of Sozaburo is unusual because, unlike most other men who loved men in his place and time, he is exclusively gay. (male homosexual relations were not rare in pre-modern Japan, but they were not exclusive of relations with women. Sozaburo, on the other hand, apparently cannot stand women.)
One comrade after another begin to lust after Sozaburo. Because of this, the militia leaders see Sozaburo as trouble. It is never completely clear whether Sozaburo's exclusive gayness is related to this perception. In one telling scene, the commanders order an officer to break Sozaburo in with a woman. The commanders believe this would solve the 'problem'. This is strange because Sozaburo had not yet approached any man. It is the men's reaction to Sozaburo which is the problem, so why do the authorities identify Sozaburo as the one who needs to be dealt with?
To complicate things further, the film seems intent on portraying Sozaburo as an evil character. Under duress, Sozaburo submits to a relationship with a sadistic older man Yuzawa Tojiro. Sozaburo eventually murders Yuzawa after Yuzawa threatens to kill either him or Tashiro. Now one can argue that this killing is justified, but as if to leave us no doubt about Sozaburo's evil, a later scene has Sozaburo admitting he likes killing. Sozaburo then engineers an elaborate scheme to frame Tashiro for Yuzawa's murder.
Sozaburo is eventually eliminated by his Shinsengumi superiors. Again it is unclear whether Sozaburo is terminated because of the murders he committed, or because of the chaos caused by the desire other men have for him. The conversation between Sozaburo's superiors prior to his execution focuses on the destabilizing effect of Sozaburo's beauty on the militia's power structure. Yet as their conversation continues, there is a realization that Sozaburo may be the murderer they were looking for. So is his death a justice killing or a scapegoat killing?
Oshima leaves many questions unanswered. A key strength (or according to some, a key weakness) of this film is its openness to interpretation. The lack of transparency with regards to characters' motivations and feelings is frustrating to some viewers, but also leaves the audience free to imagine.
Kano Sozaburo (played by Matsuda Ryuhei) is himself a kaleidoscopic mystery which lends itself to a thousand interpretations. He appears as a strong young man in some scenes, and as a submissive child in others. A masterful creation of lighting and makeup, Kano's placid face looks evil and grotesque one moment, and then beautiful and sinister the next. Matsuda's Kano Sozaburo shifts seamlessly between boyish innocence and feminine charm. Doll-like in his beauty, Kano Sozaburo is wicked queen and sleeping beauty all in one.
Matsuda Ryuhei, a first time actor, was instantly catapulted to fame with his role as Kano Sozaburo. Kano Sozaburo gained the enduring fascination of audiences in Japan and beyond as a plethora of fan sites dedicated to Matsuda Ryuhei, and even more to Kano Sozaburo, sprung up after the movie's release. The cult status of Kano Sozaburo has even given rise to a kendo craze among youths in Japan. It is hard to imagine similar widespread adulation for a gay character in the so-called more liberal social climate of the U.S.
Oshima makes no secret of taking creative license with historical material. For example, the uniform of the actual Shinsengumi was light blue, but Oshima clothed his Shinsengumi in black. Oshima makes it clear his purpose is not to recreate history, yet, some parts of the movie follow historical anecdotes quite closely.
There is the character Okita Soji, a 21 year old Shinsengumi captain said to have been Sozaburo's real love interest. Soji is a historic personality, like most of the other characters. Soji's movie persona even attempts to replicate the "real" Soji's style of swordplay, which emphasizes thrusting attacks, in contrast to the slashing attacks favored by other sword styles.
This potent mix of fact and fiction draws the audience to believe that once upon a time, not so long ago, the romantic, dreamlike, and yet chillingly real world of Oshima's Gohatto existed.