Posted: 06/09/2002




by Del Harvey

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In 1865 Japan, during the time of the Shogun, a small company of Militia in the Shinsen province spend most of their time amongst themselves, attending to their duties. They socialize with the local villagers when making their routine patrols into the local village, or in the evening, when they are off duty. When two young recruits are accepted into their ranks, some of the militia’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies are exposed, with serious consequences.

Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda) and Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano) are the young recruits. Tashiro is a competent swordsman, rather typical of most young samurai. Kano is a far superior warrior, with a killer instinct and perfect stance. Tashiro is full of the virile machismo of young men. Kano’s face and long, uncut hair give him the appearance of a teenaged girl. And there is something about the young man’s charisma which crawls under the skin of each of these warriors, leaving a different impression upon each.

The small militia is led by Commander Kondo (Yoichi Sai), an elder military man whose leadership is firm but levelheaded. His second-in-command is Captain Hijikata (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano, Brother, Sonatine), a stern taskmaster who is not “that way,” but accepts the sexual peculiarities of some men as long as they do not interfere with the welfare of the entire unit. He and Kondo have known each other since their youth, but something in Kondo’s initial response to young Kano cause Hijikata to question his old friend’s sexuality, even momentarily.

Nagisa Oshima’s Taboo takes an intriguing look at a culture known for its brutality and machismo. The concept of such harsh men accepting the taboo of homosexuality is probably new to many Westerners. But Oshima has made quite a few sexually daring films, including In The Realm of the Senses. The surprising element is the fact that it is accepted so readily and opening in this treatment. Which is a part of its appeal.

Takeshi turns in the best performance I have ever seen from him. His quiet, introverted style of acting is well-suited to the role of samurai. It helps tremendously that we are given voice-overs to his thoughts. We are instantly aware of the man’s humanity and awareness of what is really transpiring.

Ryuhei Matsuda, as Kano, is most effective, keeping both the audience and the samurai on our toes, wondering if he’s really “that way,” or if the baby-faced son of the wealthy land owner really is a cut-throat killer. The story, direction, and cinematography are top-notch. A pleasant departure from the typical samurai film, Taboo is intriguing, beguiling, cinema. Look for it at your local video store.

Del Harvey is a writer and the founder of Film Monthly. He lives in Southern California, is a devout Bears fan, and recently taught screenwriting at Columbia College for giggles.

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