Nagisa Oshima's Taboo (or Gohatto, 1999) takes place in Kyoto in 1865, during the declining days of the samurai when they were on the precipice of being phased out by the modern changes in warfare and the chaging political system... The Shinsen-gumi militia is looking for new recruits, and finds them in two young, skilled samurai, Sozaburo Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda) and Hyozo Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano). Kano's masterful sword skills are outshined by his androgynous beauty which makes him an object of affection for some of the higher-ups in the militia as well as his fellow recruit, Tashiro. Eventually, murders begin to occur within the samurai ranks and it is suspected that they may have a connection to the beguiling Kano. Captain Toshizo Hijikata (Takeshi Kitano) is put in charge of testing the young samurai and determining why these murders are occurring and who is behind them.
I am extremely interested in samurai culture. One of the facts that remains unknown to many, is the homosexual practices of many samurai. During long campaigns of war when they were away from their wives, it was not uncommon for the more elite samurai to engage in such acts with their subservients. Much like the character of Kano, these acts were not necessarily defining the men as homosexual- they blurred a vague line, married men, relieving a physical pressure with only available sex. Likewise, Kano is a product of beauty, feminine, delicate, and mysteriously coy, as if he is this creature that somehow manipulates those around him, whether gay or straight, to be jealous or to desire him. One thing is for certain, Gohatto's tale of male lust that leads to murder will not go a long way in convincing the US Military to change it's stance on gays in the armed forces.
Gohatto is a simple tale of obsession an murder combined with the samurai code of conduct and a homosexual spin. The tone is not particularly aggressive, there are eruptions of violence, some deadpan humor, but mainly it is low-key and almost analytical. Captain Hijikata serves as our eyes, out of the loop, pondering the mystery that unfolds. With a Columbolike subtlety, he determines that Kano and Tashiro are lovers by having them spar. Kano, the better swordsman, is clearly dominated by the lesser Tashiro, and Hijikata silently notes the only real answer behind this imbalance is that the two are involved. Kano is a great mystery, almost the femme fatale of the movie, a riddle, a source of desire that may or may not full well know how to manipulate his charms, or, perhaps, he is just some kind of catnip driving the male world of the militia into a sexually confused frenzy.
Oshima is one of the acknowledged masters of Japanese cinema. He was one of the great post war artists with such films as Cruel Story of Youth and Violence at Noon and is best known for the notorious In the Realm of the Senses. Gohatto came about after a nearly 15 year absence from directing. He composes some fantastic scenes, particularly the intense fighting and sparring, as well as a finale that harks back to the great Japanese stage settings, but he does show his age by overusing distracting and archaic techniques like "the wipe" transition. While a fluid and engaging work, it is a case of a master directing simple flexing his skills but not breaking any new cinematic ground or profoundly stating a personal vision. At his age and with his reputation it is a rather straightforward, labored work, capable, but not Earth shattering. Such a thing is not uncommon with directors who have proven themselves. I'm thinking of the likes of Woody Allen and John Frankenhiemer, and even Oshima's rebel Japanese cinema cohort, Shohei Imamura, who I felt did much the same with his recent film Warm Water Under a Red Bridge.
The DVD: New Yorker Films
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Image is a bit on the warm side, reddening the fleshtones, and browns rendering the image a bit murkier than was probably intended. Some minor edge enhancement. Sharpness and contrast are fine.
Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0 Japanese or French language tracks with optional English subtitles.
Extras: 18 Chapter Selections--- Cast & Crew Information for actors Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tadanobu Asano, Ryukei Matsuda, Takeshi Kitano, and director Nagisa Oshima.--- Trailer for the film plus New Yorker Films text info and trailers for their other releases, L.I.E., The Wind Will Carry Us and Love Divided
Conclusion: Interesting work from a master director. Transfer is pricey considering it isn't perfect and has few extras, but should still satisfy those who are fans of Oshima and foreign cinema.