March 12, 2006

TABOO (1999) - Brokeback samurai

TABOO (1999, Japan, titled "Gohatto")
Directed by Nagisa Oshima
US DVD Review

From the director of Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence comes the samurai version of Brokeback Mountain

The story concerns an attractive new arrival at a samurai school in Kyoto in Shogun-era 1865. Kano is young, pretty and already dedicated to swordsmanship. Many other samurai become infatuated with him and deadly complications arise, but is Kano blameless for all the trouble?

OK, so yesterday I watched Kariyushi In August and was reminded that the leading actor, Ryuhei Matsuda, had earlier been the star of Taboo when he was only 16 years old. Not an easy debut - he has numerous kendo duels and a couple of gay love scenes. The duels, and the love scenes for that matter, are always shot wide, without any chance of using a stunt double.

Kano's character seems to wear make-up, accentuating his features as feminine. It's unclear though if he's making himself up as attractive as possible, or whether the film-makers overdid the face powder, mascara and lipstick. For me, one of things that doesn't make sense about the plot is that the other samurai only fall for Kano and not each other. Why does he have to look feminine to be sexually attractive to men?

Anyway, despite the numerous samurai swordfights, let it be known that this is more of a drama than an action picture. Also, director Nagisa Oshima has made an old-school film with lots of dialogue, which is overlong even by Japanese standards. Despite the controversial subject, the issue is constantly dodged. The lovers rarely talk about how they feel, rather it's the people around them that talk about what they think is going on and what they think about it. The viewer also has to sift through the gossip and rumours to decide what is actually going on amongst the men.

Here, a society is portrayed where many samurai acknowledged that gay relationships were relatively commonplace, but few were actively disproving. They just make it clear that it's not for them. However, when the relationships start affecting discipline and local law and order, they deal with it severely - it's a rather similar policy that's ruled in the UK and USA armed forces until recently - but without the swords. It's also a similar plot to Another Country (1984), where Rupert Everett plays a schoolboy whose numerous boyfriends threaten the reputation of a Public School in 1930's England.

My first Oshima film was Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (aka Furyo) - in fact that was one of my first Japanese films. There also, the film skirted around the central themes to the point of where I missed the dramatic point of many of the scenes. Taboo in fact closely resembles the pace and tone of Brokeback Mountain. A slowly told story about a typically macho setting, disrupted by a gay relationship to the point of tragedy. At least Brokeback has a less judgemental ending.

Japanese phenomenon Takeshi Kitano stars in Taboo as the samurai school's Captain, left in charge to try and keep order. Here Kitano is reunited with director Oshima, who first cast him in 1983 in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence .

Also in the cast are Tadanobu Asano from Ichi The Killer, playing one of the lovers. He later played a samurai in Zatoichi, also with Kitano. We've yet to see his latest films, the irreverent Tokyo Zombie and the already heralded thriller Invisible Waves.

Lastly, Shinji Takeda makes an impression with his handsome and confident presence - he was also in the awesomely creepy Pulse (aka Kairo), which is firmly in my top ten Japanese horrors.


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