The Code of Conduct detailed in Taboo doesn't forbid two samurai from holding hands, but when Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda) squeezes an unsuspecting warrior's palm on their way to a brothel, the other man's eyes flash shock, then temptation, then wariness, as if something deadly has obstructed his path. He immediately pulls his hand out of Kano's, and the danger passes.
directed by Nagisa Oshima with Ryuhei Matsuda, Tadanobu Asano, and "Beat" Takeshi Kitano runs February 23-March 1 at Egyptian
The year is 1865, and the Kyoto militia needs a few grim men. Samurai exist solely to protect the shogun, and any one who transgresses—say, by borrowing money or fighting for personal motives—must disembowel himself. After hosting trial sparring sessions, two elders choose the "only" two worthy recruits: Kano, an 18-year-old androgynous-looking merchant's son, and Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano), a conventionally handsome, goateed lad who's less sword-savvy than his peer. Big mistake: Tashiro, among many other samurai, soon falls hard for the irresistible youngster with the notoriously "pretty face," and the militia's traditional facade of focus and clarity cracks due to rumors, jealousies, and a series of mysterious murders.
Best known for In the Realm of the Senses (1976) and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), director Nagisa Oshima here depicts a highly structured military culture that's threatened by any form of passion. Kano's "long locks" contrast provocatively with the close-cropped heads of his comrades, while his smooth skin and glossy, girlish lips cause them to sputter trite flattery like "I don't want to die without making love to you" and "I'd give my life to wake to the nightingale's song after holding you in my arms all night long." Analogous to this sexual tension, uncontrolled nature also jeopardizes the regimented world of the samurai: Portentous angle- and symmetry-laden shots of spacious jousting chambers and Zen rock gardens are belittled when the scenery shifts to the jagged surface of a dry riverbed or the lush, shadowy wilds outside the city.
Yet beyond its careful, beautiful symbolism, the restrained Taboo doesn't have much to offer. When Captain Hijikata ("Beat" Takeshi Kitano of Kikujiro) becomes frustrated with the dissolution of the militia (or perhaps enraged by jealousy), he declares that Kano "was too beautiful" and slices his sword through the trunk of a cherry blossom tree, reiterating Taboo's dualistic oppositions between order and chaos, militarism and beauty. But Kano's a man, not a tree. By treating his character simply as a blank object of samurai desire, no more complex than the ornate mechanical geisha that appears in one scene, Oshima never uncovers the flesh tones beneath the Kabuki face paint.