Once upon a time, Nagisa Oshima was a beautiful boy. Beautiful not in countenance, but in the ways he tore Japan—and Japanese filmmaking—apart. In the Sixties and early Seventies, Oshima was one of the most important names in world cinema. Today, he’s remembered mainly as the guy who 25 years ago, made that arty porno film, In the Realm of the something—you know, the one about the chick and the severed dick. Somewhere in the middle, Oshima titled one of his movies as if he were writing his own epitaph: The Man Who Left His Will on Film. But, though long out of sight, Oshima’s no cherry blossom; he didn’t drop from the branch in the blush of first becomings, nor is his a cruel story of youth. He just doesn’t make many films these days, but when he does, they’re as fresh as open wounds. Gohatto (Taboo)—a period film of rapacious beauty, its meanings fleet as snakes—is Oshima’s first movie since 1986.

Built on a series of interpretations within ruminations, all occasionally bundled together by a narrator never seen, Gohatto‘s plot concerns an androgynous merchant’s son named Sozaburo Kano, who joins the Shogun’s militia, in Kyoto, 1865. Lips pinched tight, bangs like fangs, his body slight as a girl’s, Kano—played by 17-year-old newcomer Ryuhei Matsuda—is some sort of teenage daydream: a pale and lethal alien from the glitter side of the moon.

When he’s admitted into the militia, his fellow samurai woo him, only to discover that death trails in his wake. Delicious in design, delirious with detail, Gohatto was photographed in and around ancient temples in Kyoto. Its mysterious appeal is poly-demographic: anime admirers, romance aficionados, fans of Mishima and Hana-bi, young lovers on a date—this is the Oshima film for you.

Contrary to popular opinion, though, Gohatto isn’t really about Kano, or forbidden and perhaps fatal sexuality, or the passion of men for men. Gohatto—like Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (82)—is about the looks on Takeshi Kitano’s face.

“I’m a country farmer: Nagisa Oshima is a samurai.”—Shohei Imamura
The instigator of what came to be called the Japanese New Wave, Nagisa Oshima was, and continues to be, a polemicist, a provocateur, and— like Godard, a major influence—a film critic in disguise.

A strenuous innovator, Oshima makes films as filled with the hard left turns of radical politics as they are, one from another, radically different in style. Night and Fog in Japan (60) is, as J. Hoberman once observed, “a long-take tour de force fashioned out of a mere 43 setups.” Violence at Noon (66) contains more than 2,000 shots. In the shattered narrative of The Ceremony (71), Oshima smacked the official versions of postwar Japanese history so hard across the face, he has them seeing triple. Sexuality and sexual alienation are forever co-joined in his films, and fornication is never less than a revolutionary act. Yet, while some of his films border on the indecipherable, many of them are quite funny, in an awful sort of way. Death by Hanging, Three Resurrected Drunkards, and A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Song are bits of Brechtian slapstick about Japanese racial intolerance toward Koreans—but, outside of the occasional graduate seminar, where could an American under 35 ever have seen them play?

Oshima’s first film was made for Shochiku studio’s Ofuna division in 1959. Melodrama was the Ofuna house specialty, and it was there that Yasujiro Ozu made seven of his last ten films. A bitter lament for the lost innocence of the teenaged, Oshima’s debut was originally titled The Boy Who Sold His Pigeon; Shochiku insisted it be released as A Town of Love and Hope. A year and a half later, the director was already four films into his career: Cruel Story of Youth, The Sun’s Burial, Night and Fog in Japan. Blood-sucking hookers, empires of garbage, cha-cha rhythms, and nihilistic rage—those first films taste of acid and pitch. When the last of them was pulled from theaters, in the wake of a political assassination, just three days after it was released, Oshima quit his job, got married, and used his wedding ceremony as a forum to denounce the Shochiku brass. He founded Sozosha (“Creation”), his own company, in 1961, and The Catch, his first independent production, was released the same year. Oshima was 29; Takeshi Kitano had just turned 15.

Two years later, Ozu was dead.

Ozu, so the legend goes, always kept his camera close to the ground, at about the eyeline of a woman seated on tatami. Oshima, so the legend goes, directed Gohatto entirely from a chair. Ancestor worship? Not a chance. In 1996, Oshima suffered a stroke; today, he walks with two canes. Samurai carry two blades, one short, one long—a film, a career.

Gohatto, the director’s first film for Shochiku in more than 30 years, is his 22nd feature. Only two of them are about samurai codes of honor, and Kitano is the star of both.

“He’s grown uglier, and it gives him more character.”—Oshima, on Takeshi Kitano’s face in Gohatto.

The first and last shots of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (82) are close-ups on an actor then credited only as “Takeshi.” Kitano was 35 at the time; pre-Sonatine, pre-motorcycle wreck, his visage still bright and boyish, already a majore Japanese television star. Based on a novel by Laurens van der Post, The Sower and the Seed, and marketed on the stunt-casting of rock stars Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Bowie, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence was produced by the Englishman Jeremy Thomas, shot largely in New Zealand, and released throughout Europe (though not in Japan) under the title Furyo—“prisoner of war.” But to which furyo does the title refer? Ostensibly to Major Jack Celliers (Bowie), a (possibly) British officer held captive in a prison camp run by Captain Yanoi (Sakamoto). A passion, obliquely rendered, develops between the officers—just as it will in Gohatto, between samurai recruits. But the association of these empurpled and ethereal rockers is but a sidebar to the movie’s main concern: the cross-cultural understanding that evolves between the eponymous Lawrence (Tom Conti) and the brutal Sgt. Hara (Kitano).

Which prisoner of war? How about Hara, who enters the film through a cell door, and exits it incarcerated, unable to escape his impending execution? The Hara who actualizes and utters the film’s English-language title: the Hara who faces death but refuses fear. The final episode of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is perhaps the most movingly melodramatic in all Oshima’s cinema, but it’s the audience that does the crying. Unafraid of his own extinction, the brutal, beautiful Hara is grinning, ear to ear.

“There is a beautiful Japanese story about a woman’s love affair with her horse”—A zoologist in Max, Mon Amour

The last feature Oshima made, 15 years ago, in France, was Max, Mon Amour, a project Luis Buñuel didn’t live to complete; Serge Silberman produced it, and Raoul Coutard (Godard’s longtime mainstay) lit it for the screen. The film seems to be all about Charlotte Rampling’s love affair with a chimpanzee—a riff on Fay Wray and King Kong, or a vulgar variation on Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape—except that the mechanics of sexual congress between the couple is the one thing the film refuses to reveal. Apart from its concern with radical intimacy, and a casual mention of Japanese spaniels, Max, Mon Amour appeared, upon release, to be an anomaly, a misfire, and many feared it might be Oshima’s final whim. Wrong on all counts.

Funny and strange, Max, Mon Amour is a film about a key and a keyhole, nature versus nurture, a woman, her lover, and her child. Watch carefully the way Max, a former circus chimp, mistreated by his trainers and estranged from other apes, doubles for, and at times replaces, the incongruously blonde son of brunette Rampling and her far-too-understanding husband.

Maybe Max, Mon Amour is a rethink of Kon Ichikawa’s catalogue of claustrophobic perversions, Odd Obsession (sometimes called The Key), or Louis Malle’s delicate mom/boy romance, Murmurs of the Heart. More likely, though, it’s another version of the film Oshima’s been making since the beginning, and all along the way: a film like The Boy Who Sold His Pigeon or The Ceremony, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, or the 1969 masterpiece simply titled Boy. A film—like Gohatto—about a child deformed by men.

Bishonen, homosexual or not, are treated in a similar way to vampires and creatures from outer space. Outcasts all, they are the pure, eternally young victims of adult corruption.”—Japanologist Ian Buruma, on pop-culture imaginings of the cult of the beautiful, deadly boy.

As Gohatto opens, Kano, the lethal man-child, is proving his worth to the senior officers of a disciplined cadre of samurai warriors, the Shinsengumi. A particularly dexterous swordsman, Kano will undoubtedly make a vicious samurai, but there’s another, more implicit question at stake: will the Shinsengumi value the boy as a warrior, or be ripped apart by the pleasures of the flesh his androgynous features appear to portend?

“The writer Nosaka Akiyuki,” notes Ian Buruma, in his essential culture study Behind the Mask, “once said that a true bishonen [“beautiful boy”] has to have something sinister about him. The vision of pure youth, because of its fragility perhaps, reminds one of impermanence, thus of death. In fact, youth is beautiful precisely because it is so short-lived. The cult of cherry blossoms, which only last about a week in Japan, is the same as the worship of the bishonen, and the two are often compared. Taken one small step further [the cult of the bishonen] is the cult of death.”

Historically, the samurai viewed homosexuality as the purest expression of manly love, but the arrival of the bishonen Kano sows the seed of anxiety far more than the seed of lust amongst the militia. Though many of the men scrutinize him—and Oshima photographs most of them like stooges in a book of mug shots—no one pays Kano more attention than Toshizo Hijikata, the Shinsengumi’s second-in-command. Reserved and rather distant, Hijikata is unreadable, though his of every incident and murmur in Gohatto will determine its character’s fates. He’s played by the man who’s known, when he’s acting, as “Beat” Takeshi.

Familiar to every Japanese schoolgirl and her grandfather, the ranks of the Shinsengumi belong to historical fact. A fiercely nationalist legion headquartered in Kyoto, they were charged with the protection of the Shogun, and were as opposed to the Emperor’s restoration as they were to the increasing incursions of heavily armed Western forces along the coast of Japan. Courageous and cunning, the Shinsengumi demonstrated their power by suppressing anti-Shogunate rebel forces in the battle of Ikedaya in 1864, yet scarcely three years later, the Meiji Restoration succeeded, and the Shinsengumi were forever destroyed. Gohatto is set in that interim, between victory and defeat. Hijikata, like most of the characters in Gohatto—with the notable exceptions of Kano and Hyozo Tashiro, another new recruit—was an actual samurai leader; feared for his mercilessness, he was sometimes called “the demon of the Shinsengumi.” In Oshima and Kitano’s incarnation, however, that demonology is elided; introspective and bemused, the fictive Hijikata kills no one, and is never seen in battle, though his skill with a saber—glimpsed once, in a training bout—is ferocious and precise. A life¬long friend of Commander Isami Kondo (played, in Gohatto, by another Japanese filmmaker, Yoichi Sai), the actual Hijikata was killed in battle, in 1869; he was 35 years old. Kitano is currently 53; Oshima, 68.

Tales of the Shinsengumi abound in Japanese literature and film; they’re the rough equivalent of stories about the Alamo, or the legend of Wong Fei-hung, China’s most famous martial hero. And while Gohatto, based on a pair of stories by the late novelist and political commentator Ryotaro Shiba, is legible without it, this historical background is essential to a fuller understanding of the film. Gohatto’s characters and setting mav be cultural givens, but Oshima, though never mocking his material, by no means plays it straight.

“My character has a lot of monologues: he’s not so much the main character as the storyteller of the film.”—Kitano, on the role of Hijikata

What actually happens in Gohatto remains, to the very end, as ambiguous as Kano himself, but this much we are shown: Kano and Tashiro (played by heartthrob Tadanobu Asano, with the whiskered insouciance of the young Toshiro Mifune) join the Shinsengumi on the same day. Tashiro immediately begins hitting on Kano, who may be a virgin, and has certainly never known a woman’s caress, but Kano rebuffs Tashiro’s advances. Commander Kondo and Hijikata also take an interest in Kano, but the nature of their interest is never precisely defined. Although Kano is a superior swordsman to Tashiro, when Hijikata pits them against one another in a training bout, Tashiro prevails. Hijikata interprets Kano’s defeat as evidence that the two are, indeed, sexually entwined.

One militia officer, played by Tetsuo: The Iron Man’s extremely funny/pathetic “Tomorrow” Taguchi, does take sexual advantage of Kano, and dies soon thereafter. The murder of another officer, perhaps suspected of being Kano’s lover, is attempted, and while Kano is somehow implicated, the pair of executions that bookend Gohatto are the only acts of bloodshed he is shown to commit. (When asked why he joined the Shinsengumi, Kano— in translator Linda Hoagland’s vastly superior subtitles, still extant on the Japanese DVD, though flavorlessly rewritten for Gohatto’s international release—confesses: “To have the right to kill.”) Few actions in the film—violent, sexual, or otherwise—are presented in a particularly conclusive manner, and in fact, most of Hijikata’s thoughts and conversations consist of wondering whether or not various samurai are “so inclined.”

Analysis and interpretations are the actual subjects of Gohatto, and, as if the mystery of Kano and the lust-virus that infects the Shinsengumi weren’t enough, Oshima introduces numerous digressions within the movie’s narrative flow. A recollection of a prior outbreak of lustmord among the Shinsengumi; a parable about preening raccoons, clever foxes, and river sprites; a story from Ugetsu, about the ghosts of passionate men—each of these demand analysis, but only in retrospect, or upon a second viewing, will their resonances align. Even the introspective and self-assured Hijikata recognizes the value of close re-readings, as when, in Gohatto’s exquisite final minutes, he imagines and reimagines the effects of Kano’s attraction on, and for, the warriors. “He was too beautiful,” Hijikata finally utters, voicing at last his interior suspicion that the boy was somehow evil. Kano drove men to lust and madness, and when their passions turned to demons, they stole the boy-man’s soul.

“Monster!” exclaims Hijikata, spitting in the dirt, and the screams of offscreen dying for a moment scent the air. Suddenly, there is violence, a single slash of sword, and the bough of a blossoming cherry tree breaks and falls to earth. Kitano isn’t smiling as Kyoto melts to black, for no grin can light the darkness of Hijikata’s last assertion. Like the moth that lit on Bowie’s forehead, the fates of the eternally youthful Kano, and the nearly extinct Shinsengumi, soundlessly flit away.