Making and breaking taboos – film director Nagisa Oshima – Brief Article
In the realm of the Senses director Nagisa Oshima talks about entering new realms of cinematic sexuality with his homoerotic Gohatto
Puncturing sexual boundaries has been a priority for Japanese director Nagisa Oshima. In 1976 U.S. customs refused to deliver a print of his In the Realm of the Senses to the New York Film Festival because of its explicit content. In 1983 the director went beyond heterosexual compulsion with the English-language World War II drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, in which David Bowie’s New Zealand army officer bewitches the tough Japanese POW camp commander who tortures him, played by composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. Now in his most recent film, the lush Gohatto (Japanese for “taboo”)–for which Sakamoto has written the score–Oshima tracks the unsettling, sometimes deadly spell that a stunning teenage warrior casts on a number of men in his 19th-century Japanese paramilitary unit [see review, page 70].
“This film has contemporary relevance,” says Oshima, speaking through a translator at the Cannes Film Festival, where his film was well received. “Why should we still have `don’t ask, don’t tell’? Very few people are willing to touch the theme of homoerotic undercurrents. But one cannot understand the world of the samurai without showing its fundamental homosexual aspect.”
Oshima, 68–thin, gray, bespectacled–offers his pronouncements from a chair in a lounge at the Hotel Carlton, his cane propped next to him. He has slowed down since suffering a stroke four years ago just after he announced he would shoot Gohatto, but as if to emphasize that he’s still determined to defy expectations, he’s wearing a shirt decorated with cacti, homes, and clouds on a blue sky, along with tailored black trousers and expensive Italian shoes.
“Once I was told by someone that spending time with me was as lovely as being with a lovely woman,” continues the filmmaker, who has been married to actress Akiko Koyama since 1960 and is the father of two and grandfather of three. “At the time, no one was willing to say something like that and not link it to homoeroticism. Now, though, I think people are willing to acknowledge that homoeroticism is an element of that attraction. Looking back on my own life, the friendships I’ve had with men–and I’m not talking about any specific sexual relationships, just male bonding–have more profoundly influenced my life than any relationships with women. Don’t you find male bonding fascinating?”
Gohatto takes the topic of male bonding to a new time and place: Japan in the 1860s, among the Shinsen-gumi, a motley band of warriors that welcomes two carefully chosen new recruits: the delicate, androgynous Kano (first-timer Ryuhei Matsuda) and the more masculine Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano). They become lovers; jealousy and disorder follow. “Half of the men are drawn by Kano’s femininity, and half by his presence,” says Oshima. “He is just who he is, but that appears like a woman to some of the men.” But are they gay? “There is no need to define them as homosexual on account of their attraction to him,” the director insists, perhaps disingenuously.
The fact that Kano is something of a scheming Eve Harrington may seem to link him to a long line of negative gay stereotypes (“Kano is just too beautiful,” says one militia member, “he is possessed by evil”), but Oshima’s intentions are honorable: He has been an outspoken progressive since he made his first feature in 1959, and his political films attest to his leftist leanings. Indeed, while he says he is too tired to think about making another film, he is “still actively involved in battling for what I believe in” via his vociferous appearances debating current issues on Japanese television. It seems an active retirement after such a busy career, but Oshima says simply, “That is the way that I play.”
Feinstein contributes to Time Out New York and the New York Daily News.
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