director: nagisa oshima
takeshi takano, ryuhei matsuda, tadanobu asano

. Perhaps a reading list should be handed out a week before the decision to watch Nagisa Oshima’s new film, Taboo. The readings might explain the insecure state of Japan in 1865, just after the country was opened up to the rest of the world, just before the collapse of the shogunate that had ruled it for centuries, and the restoration of the emperor. It might explain the homoerotic undertones of bushido, the Japanese warrior’s code, or the fondness of Japanese filmmakers for highly stylized, unreal studio settings. 

The film begins with the induction of two new soldiers into the shogunate militia. One of them, Kano, is a particularly beautiful youth who is immediately courted not only by his fellow inductee, Tashiro, but by half of the militia’s senior commanders. Kano sews confusion and jealousy among the ranks, which inevitably leads to murder.

“Beat” Takeshi, the Japanese actor/director famous for his brutal tough-guy films, plays the senior officer in charge of investigating the convulsions tearing his militia apart. Takeshi is a fascinating performer, capable of hinting at hidden turmoil and motives without giving too much away. Unfortunately, Oshima seems intent on making his film as gnomic, confusing the storyline with another one about rival clans threatening the militia. 

Taboo is, like the best Japanese period films, elegantly shot and relentlessly formal. A Japanese audience, aware of the context of its setting, would probably be less lost in its abstruse storyline. To western eyes, Taboo’s world, full of obscured motives and emotions as stylized as a flower arrangement, might seem like science fiction.