in the wave of asian films that rolled through the Cannes Competition last year, Nagisa Oshima's gay samurai drama got overlooked. This was a little surprising, given his reputation and the fact that it was his first fiction film since Max, My Love in 1986, but then again, Max was overlooked at the Competition then, too.It doesn't help that Oshima remains one of the cinema's great uncategorizable filmmakers. Like his more prolific contemporary Shohei Imamura, he defies both categorization and expectations. You never know what you're going to see when you walk into an Oshima film.
Taboo, for instance, is a samurai movie, but it also looks at the all-male hothouse atmosphere of a local militia in 1865.
Oshima has a longstanding interest in formally ritualized cruelty (Death By Hanging, Empire Of The Sense and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence). He's also an iconoclast. What he gives us here is a world where the samurai's code of bushido is replaced by the ethos of a really catty sorority, where all anyone's worried about is who stole whose boyfriend.
The plot is triggered by the arrival new recruit Kan (Ryuhei Matsuda), a lethal pretty boy who looks a little less masculine than the wide-eyed heroine of a Japanese anime.
Taboo is an interesting and extremely outré film; one wonders what planet the characters really come from.
To understand the context of the world they're operating in, it might be useful to draw a bit of a timeline. The setting is Japan in 1865, the year the bloody American Civil War, which rewrote the rules of warfare, ended. But the characters in this movie are still holding fencing tryouts to hand-pick men for the militia.
And for sheer shock value, it's worth recalling the fact that by 1905 Japan had so transformed itself that it would fight a modern war with Russia and win. That's almost stranger to ponder than anything in Taboo.
TABOO written and directed by Nagisa Oshima, from the novels of Ryotaro Shiba, produced by Nobuyoshi Otani, Jean Labadie and Jeremy Thomas, with Takeshi Kitano, Ryuhei Matsuda, Shinji Takeda and Tadanobu Asano. 100 minutes. A Shochiku/Canal + production. A TVA International release. Opens Friday (July 6). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 65. Rating: NNN