“Taboo,” Nagisa Oshima’s expose of homosexual passion among traditional samurai, has the musty air of a “scandalous” film from another era, a time when the mere mention of “the love that dare not speak its name” represented an audacious gesture. The shadowy political and sexual intrigue of the director’s first feature in 14 years provides a reasonable amount of dramatic interest, even if the film walks the line between conviction and camp with a not entirely steady step. Subject matter and director’s name should insure international curiosity for this faintly exotic item, although the action, sexual and artistic components are too tame to mark it as a significant commercial entry.
A director who has always looked for ways to stir up controversy with extreme subject matter, both in sex and politics, Oshima based this script on two novellas by the late Ryotaro Shiba, one of Japan’s most popular postwar writers. True to form, Oshima seems to delight in presenting moments the likes of which have never been seen on the screen before, such as samurai getting it on under the covers, bosses speculating on the sexual orientation of their subordinates and a geisha reporting on the dismal performance of an unwilling young man being forced to experience a woman. But there is also a dramatic and emotional opaqueness that keeps the picture operating almost exclusively on a surface level; the exoticism of the milieu and the enactment of the samurai’s particular codes sustains interest most of the way, but in the end it’s hard to say that there is much substance to the tale.
Action is set in Kyoto in 1865, during a tumultuous period in Japanese history marked, on the one hand, by the opening of the country to foreigners and , on the other, by the end of the Shogunate and the eventual Imperial Restoration. The politics of the time were complicated and confusing in the extreme, and Oshima deals with this, at least for Western auds, by adopting a determinedly old-fashioned approach to the storytelling; his technique, particularly in the early going, resembles that of a silent film, with everything spelled out via voiceover and, especially, intertitles.
“One Must Feel Sorry for Tashiro,” one title dictates, while a series of them reports on various rumors and romantic speculation.
The Shinsengumi militia needs replacements, and, after a series of auditions using wooden swords, two new members are chosen: Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano), a ruggedly handsome rural samurai, and Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda), a slight, oddly feminine lad with long hair. In an immediate test of his constitution, the latter is ordered by militia Commander Kondo (Yoichi Sai) and Capt. Hijikata (Beat Takeshi) to perform an execution, which he does with great skill. Tashiro is jealous of Kano’s selection for this “privilege” but cozies up to him at night, coming right out with his sexual fantasies about the strange young man.
Kano’s androgynous beauty raises the general temperature of the militia’s Spartan quarters (“He keeps his long locks, a provocation for men sensitive to his charms,” one title helpfully informs). Capt. Hijikata, who seems unusually interested in Kano himself, quickly comes to suspect that there’s something going on between the new recruits and proves it to his satisfaction by pitting them in combat against one another. When he heads off for battle, Commander Kondo lays down the “taboo” that in his absence, no relations between his men are to be condoned.
Strangely, Kano and Tashiro are rarely seen together during pic’s middle stretch, when Kano runs afoul of the militia’s code of honor, then sets out with a new superior to chase down some rival samurai who have insulted them. At the same time, Kano allows himself to be taken by a new lover, Yuzawa (Tomorowo Taguchi), a plain-looking jealous type who quickly insists that Kano cease and desist with Tashiro.
The twisted politics of the period are made simple and largely irrelevant as Oshima keeps them offscreen, in the process making the narrative easily digestible. He does introduce a twist in the road, however, in the final reel or so: When Kano is ordered to kill his longtime lover Tashiro, the scene shifts from realistic sets to a dark, misty marsh straight out of countless Japanese ghost stories. It is there, under the watchful eyes of their superiors, that the final battle of the two beautiful lovers is enacted, with uncertain dramatic credibility but effectively somber atmospherics.
Oshima shoots the curious tale with a straightforward, traditional aesthetic, without undue elaboration or stylistic flourishes. Nor is there any attempt to sentimentalize the institution or codes of samurai life, of which this was the last gasp. It’s a story with a limited range of acknowledged impulses — lust, honor, loyalty and revenge — and a far more proscribed assortment of feelings provoked in the viewer.
Handsome pic is distinguished by the fine production design, costumes and unusual and effective electronic score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, as well as by the frequent sword fights, which unfold in realistic mode. Cast registers as much with their looks and the physical profiles they cut as with their performances. Matsuda and Asano have the undeniable striking looks their roles call for and are well matched as contrasting types — refined and rough, respectively. Beat Takeshi (aka Takeshi Kitano) injects touches of light humor into the otherwise grim proceedings as the observant captain.