21 April 2009 | monty-57
A riveting, exquisite film about homosexuality in Edo-period Japan
Japan in the 1860's was in a tense political situation with the Shogunate and the Emperor in conflict over whether to trade with foreigners. Though the country was still mostly isolated, the winds of change were in the air. Long-standing traditional institutions were withering away, and soon the supremacy of the samurai would give way to that of the merchant.
Nagisa Oshima's newest film TABOO (GOHATTO) examines this socio-political decline on a personal level. The film, which was nominated for a Golden Palm at Cannes 2000 and won Best Film recognition at the St. Petersburg Festival of Festivals in St. Petersburg, Russia, is a truly riveting, yet exquisite film about homosexuality among Edo-period samurai. It is worth seeing for the simple, streamlined beauty of its images and its potent drama.
Kyoto, Spring 1865. Hyozo Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano), a low-ranking samurai from the Kurume clan, and Sozaburo Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda), an effeminate 18-year-old rich man's son, join the Shinsengumi, a conservative samurai military unit loyal to the Shogun. Deceptively demure at first, the boy Kano quickly proves his acumen for killing when ordered to execute a wayward samurai. Tashiro, struck by Kano's feminine beauty and odd power, seduces him and they become butt buddies. Other men in the unit are also taken with Kano, and soon their bodies start piling up, murdered by a not-altogether-unknown assassin.
The troop leader Isami Kondo (Yoichi Sai) and his second-in-command Toshizo Hijikata (the famed actor-director Takeshi Kitano) observe the situation and react to it differently. Kondo wants Sozaburo to pay with his life for his alleged transgressions, while Hijikata, who is as wise and merciful as can be within the samurai code of conduct, adopts a wait-and-see attitude.
The most intriguing and surprising element in the film is how fairly tolerant of homosexuality the samurai leaders are, up to a point. The two commanders even discuss the subject with bemusement. When it becomes clear that the passions are running just a little too hot and threaten the cohesiveness and then the very integrity of the unit, then and only then is Hijikata galvanized into action. The last sequence of the film, when he makes his decisive move, is one of extreme grace and potent symbolism.
Takeshi Kitano's performance is measured and calm. His character seems to have attained an inner peace that the others have not. Kitano puts a human face on a duty-bound samurai. He previously acted in Oshima's 1983 Japanese-British co-production MERRY Christmas, MR. LAWRENCE, playing a sarcastic sergeant in a Word War II P.O.W. camp who cracks jokes about homosexuality. Upon closer inspection, TABOO shares some striking similarities with that film. Both films take place in a military setting and deal with homoerotic themes. The two films are also outstanding in their exploration of the endlessly conflicting aspects of Japanese culture: prone to militarism and merciless brutality on one hand - aesthetically and spiritually attuned on the other. Oshima's images are colder, more austere and subdued (sub-dude?) in TABOO than in MR. LAWRENCE, but are also no less resplendent.