Poetry and style aren’t qualities one ordinarily associates with writer-director Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses), but this haunting, dreamlike tale of a beautiful and narcissistic military recruit (Ryuhei Matsuda) in 1865 training to become a samurai warrior, who bewitches and obsesses the men around him, is a triple-distilled example of poetic style, action and violence included. Because the central character is something of an angel of death, the film isn’t exactly politically correct in its treatment of homosexuality, but it’s debatable whether it can be called homophobic either, at least in any ordinary sense. Though it’s based on two novellas from Ryotaro Shiba’s Shinsengumi Keppuroku, it suggests a tribute to the great Kenji Mizoguchi, a Japanese master Oshima hasn’t shown much reverence for in the past. Its long takes, its lyrical and nearly constant camera movements, and its ghostly and atmospheric studio sets all suggest Mizoguchi, and the dialogue makes reference to Tales of Moonlight and Rain, the literary source of Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari. Originally titled Gohatto, this 1999 feature was Oshima’s first in 13 years, directed mainly from a wheelchair due to his 1996 stroke, and it includes some of the biggest stars in contemporary Japanese cinema, including Takeshi Kitano (impressive in a noncomic role), Tadanobu Asano, and Shinji Takeda, as well as a score by Ryuichi Sakamoto. At first glance the film seems to lack the political provocation of much of Oshima’s best work, but it can be read in part as a critique of Japanese machismo as well as a meditation on eros that in some respects recalls In the Realm of the Senses. Probably not for everyone, but almost certainly a masterpiece. 100 min. (JR)

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