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Savant Short Review:


Columbia TriStar
1999 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 100 m. / Gohatto
Starring Takeshi Kitano, Ryuhei Matsuda, Shinji Takeda, Tadanobu Asano, Koji Matoba, Masa Tommies, Masato Ibu
Cinematography Toyomichi Kurita
Art Direction Yoshinobu Nishioka
Film Editor Tomoyo Oshima
Original Music Ryuichi Sakamoto
Written by Nagisa Oshima from novellas by Ryotaro Shiba
Produced by Shigehiro Nakagawa, Eiko Oshima, Kazuo Shimizu
Directed by Nagisa Oshima

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 provocative 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 assume 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 passion.

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 VideoFlicks.

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,
Taboo rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: January 19, 2002

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