This fascinating, gorgeous film examines homosexual passions among the samurai of an 1865 militia. Taboo centers around a young samurai named Kano, whose smooth face and soft beauty makes him an object of desire. Rumors ab... more »out who might be his lover lead to a love triangle, dazzling swordfights, and a mysterious murder. The story is intriguing enough, but what makes Taboo even more striking is that the heterosexual samurai treat their comrade's queer leanings as possibly dangerous, but only because of the potential for jealousy and inflamed passions--there's no sense that they see it as unnatural or even unmanly, in striking contrast with the American military view. Japanese superstar Beat Takeshi (Fireworks, Sonatine) plays a samurai captain struggling to maintain order in the ranks. Elegantly directed by Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence). --Bret Fetzer« less
"The year 1865 was a time of transition for Japan. The Tokugawa Shogunate would collapse in two years time and the Meiji Restoration, where the emperor would be restored to his full glory was a year after that. Yet political struggles and fighting between those loyal to the shogun and those loyal to the emperor marked that interim period.The black-robed Shinsengumi are a pro-shogunate, pro-isolationist police force, a kind of elite squad fighting against pro-imperialist forces in Kyoto. They are led by Commander Kondo Isami and Captain Hijikata Toshizo.The story revolves around Sozaburo Kano, one of two new recruits whose fighting skills impress the two leaders. Kano seems very able even in his first assignment, the execution of someone who broke the Shinsengumi code of borrowing money, dispatching the offender in the traditional way. Yet his effeminate looks and his hair, still in a long pony-tail as opposed to the short-cut adult style, arouse desires in certain officers in the police force, such as his fellow recruit Hyozo Tashiro and threatens the stability of the Shinsengumi. While Kano denies that he is someone's lover, he seems to enjoy the attention he gets from the others. Hijikata seems to think Kano and Toshiro were lovers. He has a dojo bout against Kano, who stands up well, and against Tashiro, who is "one notch lower than Kano." Yet when Kano and Tashiro fight, the former does not fight as well. This inconsistency leads the captain to that conclusion in answer to rumours asking who Kano has taken up with.One repeated line has the motif of "Does he lean that way" or "I didn't know he leant that way" in regards to officers suspected of desiring Kano. There was indeed a homosexual subculture flourishing in Kyoto during the Tokugawa period and it wasn't forbidden. In the Shinsengumi, though, it's akin to love of youthful male beauty in Roman times.One thing that might confuse people is the repeated mention of the Ikedaya Jiken (Incident). That was a fight that took place at the Ikedaya, an inn in Kyoto, in July 1864. Commander Kondo and some men attacked and killed eight anti-shogunate activists, arresting twenty. The two samurai who taunt Kano while he is having a bout with Commander Inoue were suspected of being anti-shogunate activists itching for revenge. And Satsuma and Aizu refers to domains held under sway of more moderate anti-shogunate forces who sought reconciliation with the shogunate.Beat Takeshi (Takeshi Kitano under his acting name) is his usual understated but occasionally potent self, and he does well as Hijikata, even if real Hijikata died in his mid-thirties. His observation that jealousy among men is a dangerous thing underscores what happens when Kano comes into their midst. Historical accuracy is also questionable in the characterization of Commander Kondo, who like Hijikata was in his thirties when he was later captured and executed in 1868 by imperial forces.The period detail is well captured, down to the dress and even the palanquins, as is the militaristic dojo atmosphere of the Shinsengumi. An interesting study of the attractions to youthful beauty and the jealousies it can lead to."
Ai no ken: the sword of love
Daitokuji31 | Black Glass | 07/25/2004
(3 out of 5 stars)
"If one has read Ihara Saikaku short story collection _The Great Mirror of Male Love_ one would know that the homosexual trysts of the chounin, townsmen, merchants, artisans, was viewed as an alternative to the couertesan, geisha, quarters. It was not morally incorrect to have sexual relations with men. There was not even a word for homosexuality, douseiai, in Japan until after the Meiji restoration. In fact, most of the wealthy merchants dailied with both men and women.
The townsmen first emmulated the samurai who had a long tradition of homosexuality among their ranks. Usually involving an older man and a young man, or two men who were roughly the same age.
In Oshima's _Gohatto_ the viewer is introduced to Kano Sozaburo, played by the very effeminate looking Matsuda Ryuhei, _Blue Spring_, a young man who although a merchant by lineage, jojns the Shinsengumi, militia protecting the Shogun, becaise it will give him the opportunity to kill people. However, although Kano is quite skilled with his sword, he is not able to put off the advances of several samurai, including Tashiro Hyozo, played by Asano Tadanobu, _Zatoichi_, _Love & Pop_, _Bright Future_, etc., who unfortnately does not play a larger role in this movie. However, as the movie continues, individuals who desire Kano as a lover begin to die and the leaders of the Shinsengumi, Kondo Isami and Hijikata Toshizo, played by Kitano Takeshi, _Fireworks_, Kikujiro_, _Battle Royale_, etc., who begin the suspect that Tashiro is killing his would be rivals. However, is that truly so?
This is a decent film. The camera work is done well, and the scenery is absolutely lovely. However, it is a bit jumpy. Much of the plot is dedicated to the Shinsengumi's members worrying about their enemies, but this is put on the backburner because of the "love" story, which although it can be entertaning is quite weak, because we are never able to learn anything about Kano emotions, however, I guess the emotionless Kano goes well with Mastuda's wooden acting.
A couple of notes. Kano's forelocks are mentioned several times in the film. When a samurai comes of age he shaves off his forelocks. Also the forelocks signify that a young man is availible to become the "passive" member of a homosexual relationship. After he shaves off his forelocks, he is supposed to become the "active" partner.
Some might find it quite odd when Kitano's character chops the the sakura tree at the end of the film. Cherry blossoms represent the fleeting of life and beauty. Equate this with the feminine beauty of Kano, and it is quite significant"
A Subtle, Unsettling, Beautiful Film By Nagisa Oshima
C. O. DeRiemer | San Antonio, Texas, USA | 11/06/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
""A gorgeously filmed study of homosexual lust" wrote one reviewer, and dumber words by a film critic have yet to be written. Taboo is a meditative study, broken by bouts of intense but not flashy sword combat, of what happens when a disruptive element enters the closed, hyper-macho world of a military unit.
It's Kyoto in 1865. The old social and economic order imposed on Japan by the Tokugawa shogunate is slowly atrophying. The Shunsen-gumi is an elite samurai unit, one of several, whose job it is to maintain order for the shogun. Recruitment has been difficult, and now candidates are accepted, after rigorous trials, from the merchant class. The troop is ruled by rigid hierarchy, a code of conduct which is unforgiving and a demand for loyalty which cannot be questioned. The troop's captain is Toshizo Hijikata (Beat Takeshi); his lieutenant is Soji Okita (Shinji Takeda).
Sozaburo Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda) is the 18-year-old son of a wealthy merchant whose family at one time had been samurai. He proves to be an outstanding candidate in sword combat and is accepted, along with one other, Hyozo Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano). Kano is, no other word will do, beautiful, with a pale, oval face, limpid eyes and full, cupid lips. He is not effeminate, but he is a feminine dream some men will lust for. He also is without apparent emotion. He perhaps is aware of the effect he has, and he is passive in the face of the sexual tension he creates. Passion among men in the military is as old, or older, as the Egyptian charioteers, the Greek hoplites, down to modern armies. The samurai accepted this as a fact of life, something without consequence as long as discipline, order and duty prevail. Kano's feminine beauty and his passivity create tensions among this cloistered group of warriors, who have no wars to fight. This leads to ambiguous actions, assumptions and death.
The film serves as a cool commentary on the relationships among these men, from the two samurai who profess their love directly to Kano and implore him to let them have him, to Beat Takeshi's Captain Hijikata, who is wise and a little bemused by Kano. Hijikata may not, as he puts it, "be that way," but he finds that he and the other officers are a little more gentle with Kano than they might be with others. Kano himself, in most regards, does not react to those who want him carnally. When he allows himself to be used once, he might as well have been in another room for all the response he gives. If he doesn't react to others' lust, neither does he seem moved by killing or death. Ordered to behead in a ritual execution a samurai who broke the code of behavior, Kano does so without hesitation and as efficiently as if he were butchering a pig.
What motivates Kano? We are never sure. At the end of the movie, when Kano is ordered by his superiors to fight and kill the fellow samurai who has been judged a murderer, we find ourselves with doubts, just as Captain Hijikata realizes he has doubts. Perhaps it's as simple as the answer Kano gave to an officer who asked him, "Why does a rich man's son join the militia?" Kano answered, "To have the right to kill."
Beat Takeshi does an excellent job as the captain of the troop. He brings a subtle glimpse of comedy now and then to the role, but now and then also a questioning look at Kano. As Takeshi Kitano he has written and directed any number of hard-boiled, macho yakuza movies. His casting is effective and unusual. Roger Ebert wrote, "Imagine John Wayne in "Red River," with a stirring beneath his chaps every time he looks at Montgomery Clift." This a great image but it doesn't convey the subtleties of the situation. The movie wouldn't work, however, without Ryuhei Matsuda. He looks at times like an Utamaro print. What is surprising is that he was just 15 when Nagisa Oshima cast him in the the part; it was his first acting role.
Oshima, who directed that other beautiful and perverse movie, In the Realm of the Senses, has created a film which is elegant and a feast for the eye. It sets it's own, deliberate pace. It's wonderfully photographed, whether in winter or in spring, whether in the streets of Kyoto or in the barracks of the troop. This may not be a movie for everyone, but if you approach it with an open mind -- and not as a "gorgeously filmed study of homosexual lust" -- I think you'll be rewarded.
The DVD picture is excellent. There are no significant extras."
Nani | Tampa, FL | 06/30/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This movie is absolutely superb. The acting is amazing (I am a big fan of Beat Takeshi and he's genius in every movie he's in) and it's a work of art within itself. It has the feeling of a beautiful Japanese watercolor with flowing designs and fantastic scenes. Every scene is filled with elegance and careful attention to detail. The directing is more than superb and just the mere thought of this film makes me catch my breath."
Sharp, Crisp, Refreshing
Peter Nelson | 12/18/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Japanese films have quickly become my favourite genre. I knew I had to rent Taboo. The acting is amazing, very believeable. The main character, Kano, is so perfect for the role: I have to admit that, even as a guy, I can say that he's very handsome. I found myself wanting to see more of him, but that's not to say that there was a lack of him. The first scene of the movie is a Kendo sparring match. Kendo is the Japanese art of swordfighting. Never have I come across such perfect, delightful Kendo demonstrations in a film. Watching the actors use their swords is almost like watching Monét paint in his garden. You always wanted to see it, and there it is, just as sleek and smoothe as you can imagine. The Kendo scenes are very inspiring, and truly remarkable. Throughout the film, there is a perfect balance of every event. Nothing is dwelled upon, and everything comes in the right amount. Every single image and scene is sharp, crisp, and refreshing. The camerawork is flawless, almost as if we see what exactly what we want to see, like in a vivid dream filled with delight. Anyone who likes foreign films should watch Taboo. It's quite an amazing film, and I have to say extremely well-done."