One of the hot button issues in the United States since the early
1990s has been the service of homosexuals in the military. While gay
men and lesbians openly serve in the armed forces of some of our allies,
it is a divisive issue. In a rather ironic twist, though, the "Don't Ask,
Don't Tell" policy currently in effect in the USA is at the heart of Nagisa
Oshima's hauntingly beautiful film TABOO [GOHATTO]. After an
absence of more than a dozen years, during which he shot two television
documentaries, developed an aborted project about Sessue Hayakawa
and Rudolph Valentino and suffered a stroke, Oshima has returned
to form. A meditation on the effects of homosexuality in the closed
society of the samurai on the eve of its dissolution, TABOO [GOHATTO],
adapted from two novellas by Ryotaro Shiba, is only the second time
this director has made an historical (that is, period) film.
By the mid-19th century, Japan was in the process of "opening up"
to the West. The first American ships arrived in July 1853 and the
Treaty of Kanagawa took effect some nine months later. As Japanese
ports opened to international traders, some within the country
revolted against the Shogun. By the 1860s, a militia comprised of
trained samurai called the Shinsengumi was created specifically
to protect the Shogun. Oshima's film begins shortly after an uprising
had been quelled while the Shinsengumi are recruiting new officers.
Out of all the potential candidates only two stand out. Hyozo Tashiro
(Tadanobu Asano), a low-ranking samurai, and Sozaburo Kano
(Ryuhei Matsuda), a rich man's son with a preternatural beauty.
Almost immediately Tashiro professes his desire for Kano and
rumors suddenly persist over Kano's relationship. Because of his
gifts and his extraordinary good looks, the young recruit soon
is being courted by several officers. Only when some of those same
officers begin to turn up dead do the commander (Yoichi Sai) and
his lieutenant (Beat Takeshi) begin an investigation.
In an interview included with the press notes, the director
explains that he took on this project because in the past no one
could broach the issue of homosexuality without being censored and
because "in my opinion, one cannot understand the world of the samurai
without showing the fundamental homosexual aspect." I suppose he
should be commended for wanting to tackle such a topic. TABOO
[GOHATTO] certainly is visually stunning, thanks to the painterly
cinematography of Toyomichi Kurita, the detailed period settings by
Yoshinobu Nishioka and the costumes of Emi Wada. Coupled with the
hauntingly beautiful score of Ryuichi Sakamoto and the understated
performances, the film has much to admire.
Still, I had a vaguely unsettled feeling after viewing it. The central
character of Kano, captured by teenager Ryuehi Matsuda, is both
compelling and unlikable. He has been directed to play the role as
part-coquette, part cold-blooded killer. Like many blessed with good
looks, Kano is aware of the effect he has on the other men, but does
nothing to discourage the attention. He is something of an enigma but
the hints about his motivations can be construed as disturbing and even
I would recommend TABOO [GOHATTO], especially for its
intriguing point of view about a closed society, but do so with some
MPAA Rating: NONE
Running time: 100 mins.
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.