Taboo Movie Review
New Yorker Films is hyping the similarity between Senses and Oshima's latest work, Taboo, saying the new film, "like... Senses, deals with the anti-authoritarian sway of sexuality, a nearly taboo subject in Japan."
Don't believe the hype. In many ways, Taboo is the antithesis of Senses -- from its lack of sexual explicitness to its historic setting in 19th century Kyoto. Where Senses captures the hedonistic life of a heterosexual couple, Taboo showers us with androgyny, same-sex yearnings, and macho sword fights, all in a samurai setting that tests the characters' moral and physical strength.
In the enclave of an all-male militia designed to protect the Shogun, does it matter that some of the men sleep with each other? "Don't ask, don't tell" takes on new meaning with Taboo, a movie that works so well because it's filled with characters like Toshizo Hijikata, an agonized samurai captain played with aplomb by Beat Takeshi. Takeshi, a director in his own right and a comedic TV star in Japan, is the heart and soul of Taboo (and gets top billing). Takeshi's aging captain struggles to accept the fact that a newly recruited teenage samurai is fooling around with a fellow recruit, and that many of the other samurai are in love with the teen.
From the opening scene, that teen withstands his new profession's vicissitudes, which require him to execute dishonored militia and kill those who would kill him. The young samurai (newcomer Ryuhei Matsuda) has banged hair, pale skin, feminine lips -- and biceps big enough to handle the swords and knives he needs to defend himself in bed and on the streets of Kyoto, where dangerous thugs walk around. His reason for joining the samurai is clear: "To have the right to kill," he tells an inquisitor in the samurai headquarters.
Phalli are never shown in Taboo, and why should they be? Taboo isn't a film about sex -- it's a film about Japan's last samurai and the way one person can have a dramatic effect on those around him. With a film score by Ryuichi Sakamoto (best known for his Oscar-winning work on The Last Emperor), and outfits and backdrops that show off the beauty of pre-modern Japan, Taboo is another new film from Asia that deserves considerable attention. It may not feature the stunning martial arts scenes or operatic storyline of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and it may not have the happy ending of Chunhyang, but like those two period pieces, Taboo is a visual marvel from start to finish.
Moviegoers are lucky that the 68-year-old Oshima is still around to make films like Taboo, which was honored at last year's Cannes Film Festival and is now being released theatrically. Oshima suffered a serious stroke in 1996, forcing him to take a three-year sabbatical. But he has re-emerged with new vigor to complete Taboo, his 26th film, telling one interviewer, "I've spent all my life breaking taboos."