Toronto
1 min

Samurai sham

All that beauty must end in death

TOO BEAUTIFUL. Everybody wants a piece of Ryuhei Matsuda, who plays a samurai Billy Budd in the troubled film Taboo. Credit: Xtra files

The uniqueness of a gay samurai movie, should be enough to recommend a film like Taboo. But it’s not.



Decades ago in the 1960s and ’70s, director Nagisa Oshima launched the Japanese new wave of cinema and reached international exposure with films such as In the Realm Of The Senses. That film’s sexually explicit content broke new ground in Japanese cinema and challenged cultural limits at the time (it was released only in a censored form in Japan although winning awards at Cannes).



Taboo (or Gohatto), Oshima’s first film in years, feels dated in content and stilted in style. A seductive femme boy is caught in an emotional and sexual tug of war among the men within a nineteenth century samurai school. The femme boy is portrayed in obvious ways – soft flowing hair, make-up and pastel Kimono amongst a platoon of shaven-headed men in black.



The chest-thumping line delivery that pretends to be tortured men trapped in macho roles, comes off as cardboard cut-out characters. This might be because Oshima has chosen to use a number of non-actors in essential roles including the lead Sozabura (played by Ryuhei Matsuda). The only acting that has any dynamism is the comic relief of comedian and film director Takeshi Kitano as the goofball captain.



Much of the plot is told to us in expository statements by actors who stand or sit stock still (a standard of samurai movies). The voice-over announcements of what the characters are thinking are simply insulting to the audience. And actors appear to be standing on sets that are more theatrical then cinematic.



Most insulting is the intertwined nature of death and homosexuality – which Oshima sees as some great accomplishment. In the closing scene, the samurai master Kondo slices down a cherry sapling (an obvious stand-in for the femme boy) saying, “Sozaburo was too beautiful. Men took advantage of him. He was possessed by evil.”



The ending makes the film feel deeply seated in the past.

If you are a great fan of straight samurai movies or extremely knowledgeable of this point in Japanese history (1865, the decline of the samurai and Shogun way of life to be replaced by the restoration of the Emperor), you might enjoy the film’s subtle comments on the formalities of both. Otherwise Taboo is a complete miss.



Taboo, in Japanese with English subtitles, opens at the Carlton (20 Carlton St) on Fri, Jul 6; call 598-2309.