1999, NR, 100 min. Directed by Nagisa Oshima. Starring Yoichi Sai, Shinji Takeda, Tadanoby Asano, Ryuhei Matsuda, Takeshi “beat” Kitano.
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., Feb. 23, 2001
With 1976's outré love story In the Realm of the Senses, mercurial Japanese writer-director Nagisa Oshima cemented his international reputation as a provocateur and arthouse darling. Last year's Taboo (Gohatto) explores similar territory -- the fatal allure of obsessive, transgressive sexuality -- but with much less of a sensational stir. Not that it isn't subversive, considering that it's essentially a jidai-geki, or historical film, about the erotic intrigues among the (male) members of the Shinsengumi, a samurai militia. Or that it stars “Beat” Takeshi, a prolific actor-director whose catcher's mitt of a face and hypermacho persona (witness 1989's aptly titled Violent Cop) make him something like a cross between Charles Bronson and Harvey Keitel. Or that major events like the Battle of Ikedaya and the demise of the shogunate take place offscreen, while the camera lingers on the androgynously beautiful, impudent visage of teenage Ryuhei Matsuda, making his film debut as Sozaburo Kano, a Shinsen recruit who inspires lustful madness throughout the dojo. His chief admirer is Hyozo Tashiro (Asano), a gruff, scruffy-bearded scamp who proves his desire by crashing an execution and winding up in the brig. But even the unit's lieutenant (Takeshi) and commander (Sai) are desperate to control Kano's boyish, sloe-eyed charms. Add in a beheading with a super-soaker squib and a scene of oddball pageantry in a Shimabara brothel, and Taboo is plenty bizarre, even darkly comic at times. But it's also elegant and mannered, with deliberately opaque, arm's-length characterizations and much of the glossy restraint one expects to find in a more conventional period piece. Kano in particular is a cypher; for all the puzzlement about his motives for joining the Shinsengumi (to have the “right to kill”) and whether he “leans that way,” we never learn much, even with intertitles and voiceover narration goosing the exposition along. This is no accident -- he's a blank slate onto which his suitors project their ardor -- but Oshima's choices don't exactly make the film easy to follow. However, there's never a shortage of atmosphere, largely due to the photography of Toyomichi Kurita (a frequent collaborator of Alan Rudolph), who uses diffuse lighting and graceful long takes to draw a bead on the otherworldly milieu of the story's source material, two novellas by Ryotaro Shiba.