Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
New period samurai films are becoming a rarity, but 1999's Gohatto (Literally, 'against the
rules') is from the important Japanese director Nagisa Oshima, who made shocking social comment
pictures in the '60s like Death by Hanging, and gained international notoriety for his
erotic 1976 film, In the Realm of the Senses. After a long stint in television, Oshima
returned to the big screen with this beautifully realized film, which was anticipated as another
daring taboo-breaker. Instead, it's a sober and somewhat frustrating look at sex in the military
that refuses to be emotional or to draw conclusions about its own subject matter. It has some
themes in common with Oshima's earlier Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. It ought to be
required viewing at West Point, because its political-social observations about suppressed gay
activity in the ranks must be a universal military issue.
The shogunate militia needs recruits, and Captain Hijikata (Beat Takeshi) accepts
two young applicants, the brash and lowbred Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano) and the very delicate and
Kano (Ryuhei). Kano's presence brings the not-uncommon homosexuality in the samurai milita to
the surface of everyday affairs. He's rumored to be Tashiro's lover, and his looks attract the
attention of other officers and men. Hijikata tries to let him find his own way for a while, and then
assigns a sergeant to introduce Kano to women at the local geisha house. This fails miserably.
When soldiers said to be involved with Kano turn up dead, the militia becomes a home for unspoken
suspicions and rivalries. Outsiders enter the fortress and insult the militia, and an officer takes
Kano to track them down, more out of paternal instinct than good sense. Both are injured. Hijikata's
top lieutenants believe he's favoring Kano. Evidence found at a crime scene is traced
to Tashiro, who may have been killing Kano's lovers out of jealousy. Hijikata orders Kano to kill
Tashiro, and sets a trap to observe the confrontation.
Using spare intertitles and scenes of unusual beauty, Oshima tells the story of a garrison of samurai
militia during the decline of the shogunate power, when recruits were hard to come by. Even some of
the officers aren't skilled swordsmen, and to hold things together Hijikata must command his troops
with a combination of discipline and sympathetic concern for their problems.
In a very un-sensational manner, Taboo shows how semi-covert homosexual activity in an
all-male society takes on a destructive bent. Even before the murders occur (one of the soldiers
is a psycho killer), the incompatibility of 'love' and military life is made all-too evident. The
leaders accept the existence of soldiers with 'leanings', but the clandestine nature of their
activities creates another, unacknowledged hierarchy of loyalties and jealousy within the military
structure. In other words, 'don't ask don't tell', doesn't work because the emotions involved bring
all the hidden sex to the surface anyway. With many men rumored to be lovers of the 'beautiful'
new recruit, the motives of the officers who favor Kano are in question, especially when Kano is
given preferential treatment. When emotions run too high, a petty distraction (the straight officers
joke about it) can become something dangerous.
Beat Takeshi and Ryuhei Matsuda
Kano has a feminine face and lips that Clara Bow would envy; perfectly combed locks of hair jut across
his cheeks, and he walks in a just-so way, not exactly effeminate, but definitely not
masculine either. He's a perfect provocation for closeted gays because he keeps silent about himself
and prefers to watch the effects of his attraction on others. He's so aloof, his lovers always
someone else is his first choice, creating a situation that's disruptive to morale. Kano assumes that
any soldier who approaches him can only be doing so for one reason, which also generates tension. When
asked, he says he joined the militia to be able to kill legally, which seems to be his only real
Top-billed Beat Takeshi is a Japanese television personality and director. His Hijikata is a thoughtful
blend of disciplinarian and thinker, and we see him ponder the problem of what to do about the
trouple in his corps. Because all the action and emotions remain rather remote and subdued,
viewers who aren't reading between the lines may see the film as a samurai story where little happens
and nothing is explained.
Visually, the film is a treat. The settings are interesting and the camera is not used so formally as
to become static. One entrance by a fully-adorned geisha is a beautiful showstopper. Most of the
fights happen at night and are not choreographed as action pieces, but the final confrontation takes
place in a spooky stylized set similar to those in Kwaidan.
Taboo is still more of a samurai murder mystery than a story about gays per se. The politics
of the militia are fascinating, and there is the obiligatory beheading scene and some swordfighting
skirmishes. The packaging misleadingly implies that this is a standard martial-arts samurai film,
which it is not. Although the 'gay activity' onscreen is minimized, it will probably come as a very
unwelcome surprise to viewers not expecting it. The film is not rated, indicating it did
not get a standard American theatrical run, but the Canadian rating is 14A, which tells you that
there's no nudity or graphic content. This may be a Canada-only DVD release ... DVD Talk's
Geoffrey Kleinman found it only at
Columbia TriStar's DVD of Taboo is a flawless transfer of a beautifully-photographed set of
images. The only extra are some text biographies of the cast, director and composer Riyuchi Sakamoto;
to figure out what I was looking at I had to refer to the web and other reviews. Several of these
reviews noted that the popularity of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was attracting interest
in Taboo; undoubtedly it surprised many who expected the usual martial arts spectacle.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: January 19, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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