Gassoh tells the tale of three childhood friends who harbor different political and social leanings. The year is 1868, after 300 years of domination, The Tokugawa Shogunate has fallen. Yoshinobu Tokugawa, the last Shogun, has just been exiled to Mito. This historical political event was said to have started without bloodshed as the political leaders at that time agreed to a peaceful discussion (rather than war) to usher in the Meiji era. But as the movie’s narrator explained, humans are not so innocent creatures as discontent and rebellion soon ignited all over Japan.
We have 3 life-long friends – Kiwamu (Yuya Yagira), the fiery and loyal samurai who clings to the glory of the Shogunate; Masanosuke (Koji Seto) the adopted son of the House of Kasai who was forced to leave his home as a result of the death of his adopted father and Teijiro (Amane Okayama), the scholar among the three, who pursues Goku for breaking off his marriage to his younger sister (Mugi Kadowaki).
Shochiku, the film studio which gave us The Twilight Samurai, and Yoji Yamada’s other projects including Love and Honor, Kabei Our Mother, Tokyo Family and the recent Haha to Kuraseba [母と暮せば] featuring Yamada’s perennial muse Sayuri Yoshinaga and Ninomiya Kazunari, has this samurai movie from director Kobayashi on limited release.
Tatsuo Kobayashi is practically unknown to most outside Japan, but his collaboration with Aya Watanabe, who is credited for such coming of age movies including Josee, The Tiger and The Fish and A Gentle Breeze in the Village has come up with a first-rate movie where the three main actors offer more than amusement, but significant acting showdowns, especially from Yuya Yagira and Koji Seto. Note also that Gassoh is the second live action adaptation from Hanako Sugiura after Miss Hokusai.
Mixing supernatural story-telling with narratives of Japanese politics and samurai adventurism, Gassoh felt more than just a coming of age, but a quasi-political statement spiced up with young samurai’s mania for prostitutes and sex.
As Kiwamu Akitsu, Yuya Yagira successfully projects the ideal samurai – loyal, strong and manly, chivalrous yet like many of his peers during the end of the Shogunate; he is blinded by such loyalty – willing to die for an ideal even its leaders have already abandoned. After Nobody Knows and Again – Yurusenai Aitai [ ゆるせない、逢いたい], this is Yagira’s most exciting performance. I was expecting complete domination from Yagira, yet Amane Okayama left some lasting impressions himself, as the scholar (and the voice of reason) among the three.
Koji Seto, who previously has remained in my memory as Takanori Ando in Sadako and transfer student Biito “Beat” Mizorogi, in Runway Beat [ランウェイ☆ビート], projects a certain naiveness in this film. He is the complete opposite of Yagira’s Kiwamu. While Kiwamu is fiercely loyal to the Shogitai and willing to die for the cause, Seto’s Masanosuke Yoshimori is like a young kid unsure of himself. Seto has, indeed, graduated from playing forgettable, pigeon-holed characters and came up with a significant acting milestone. He has some challenging scenes to play here – not only was he kicked out from his home upon the death of the master who adopted him, he was forced to challenge the killer to a duel which never materialized. He also acted as Yagira’s jealous “rival” to Kana (Minami Sakurai) who is completely enamored with Yagira’s character. One of my favorite Seto scenes is when he read Kana’s love letter to Kiwamu and shredded the letter to pieces and threw it in the river, just as Kiwamu gave him a friendly hug.
The acting showdown between Yagira and Seto was not physical though there was a scene where Yagira completely obliterated Seto in a violent confrontation. At the end of the movie, where most of the elite Shogitai were either injured or dead, Kiwamu asked Masanosuke to assist him in his seppuku, to which Masanosuke completely chickened out.
The novelty of the supernatural tales injected into the film was just exquisite – two samurai fighting inside a tea cup, a young man sleeping underneath a camphor tree and the stars, but the opening scene involving Masanosuke where an unknown creature seems to inhabit the area was especially thought-provoking. Does it signify the decay of Japanese society and the Shogun’s rule?
Mugi Kadowaki who plays Yagira’s love interest made the most of her limited scenes, while Joe Odagiri portrayed the tragic Tokunoshin Mori to perfection. The popular actor-filmmaker maybe playing a supporting character, but his massive on-screen presence rivals that of the main leads. Special mention to the underrated yet talented Amane Okayama and Kai Inowaki who plays one of the elite Shogitai.
I’m not sure if Gassoh will make it to the list of top Japanese movies for 2015 and/or vie for Best Picture at Japan Academy prize or even get a mention at Kinema Junpo’s annual list, but one thing I’m sure of – the incredible mix of delicate, sensual and intense scenes of Gassoh calls for a celebration – not only for filmmaker Tatsuo Kobayashi but for the lead actors, especially Yagira and Seto.