Veteran Japanese director Nagisa Oshima remains best known for "In The Realm Of The Senses", the controversial cause celebre in which a woman mutilates her lover. Apart from one graphic beheading, no such mutilation recurs in this sombre study of the sexual tensions within the Shinsen-gumi - the elite cadre of samurai guards set up in the 1860s to shore up the waning power of the Tokugawa Shogunate.
When young fencer Sozaburo (Ryuhei Matsuda) is recruited to the Shinsen-gumi by its commander Kondo (Yoichi Sai) and his lieutenant Hijikata (Takeshi Kitano), his boyish good looks soon catch the eye of the other soldiers. Officially homosexuality is gohatto - taboo - but the leaders tend to turn a blind eye. Eventually, though, a disturbing chain of events force them to take a stand.
Oshima's first film for eight years is an austere, elusive, and often impenetrable work that shows a formidable fighting force being corrupted from within by jealousy, suspicion, and base human instincts. The director covered much of the same ground in his 1983 English-language drama "Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence", but his latest has little of that film's epic grandeur and emotional accessibility.
"Lawrence" was notable for introducing Western audiences to Takeshi 'Beat' Kitano, who appears here as a sceptical instructor with his own unresolved feelings towards Sozaburo. But while it's intriguing to see him cast so defiantly against type in a movie very different from his own gangster thrillers, it's not enough to make "Gohatto" much more than a rather alienating oddity.
In Japanese with English subtitles. Visit the official website.