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Movie Review

The Allure of a Geisha, the Sword of a Samurai

'Taboo' is the complex tale of an attractive, competent recruit amid a macho militia in Kyoto.


When you think of samurai movies, you think of Toshiro Mifune and otherepitomes of masculine heroism. When you recall director Nagisa Oshima, you're reminded of his notorious--and overrated--sex-equals-death fable "In the Realm of the Senses" (1976) and his iconoclastic, socially critical masterpieces of the '60s such as "Boy" and "Death by Hanging." So you can be sure that an Oshima samurai movie will be like no other: His first theatrical film in 14 years--he's been working in TV--is not titled "Taboo" for nothing.

Infinitely more complex than "Realm," "Taboo" is one of Oshima's finest films, recalling his prodigious early efforts but marked by a contemplative detachment. A classic Japanese period picture at its most evocative and rigorous, "Taboo" is a major work of subtle suggestiveness that lets the audience connect the dots. It is set in 1865 in an ancient Kyoto temple, headquarters of the Shinsengumi militia.

Commodore Matthew Perry's dropping anchor in the Bay of Edo in 1853 would open up isolationist Japan to trade--and thereby erode the power of the shogunate, the military dictatorship that had ruled the country for 700 years. By 1863 the shogun would need a personal militia--the Shinsengumi--to protect him.

Composed mainly of young men from peasant or poor trading families, the militia, which increased rapidly from two dozen to around 200 men, had triumphed at the Battle of Ikedaya in 1864 over the rebellious Chosu and Higo clans. But uprisings by clans, outraged by the shogun's treaty with "barbarians"--and most likely also feeling left out of the deal--continued, and by the spring of 1865 the Shinsengumi was hard-put to attract qualified recruits. (By the end of 1867 the great-grandfather of the present emperor would at last succeed in overthrowing the shogunate and restoring power to the throne.)

Had recruits been plentiful there's just no way that Sozaburo Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda) would have been accepted. From a samurai-turned-wealthy-merchant family, Kano is a skilled and confident swordsman but is so pretty that a maiko--apprentice geisha--would envy his rosebud lips. While his gestures and movements are not effeminate he continues to wear, at age 18, his hair long and in a ponytail rather than in a samurai's topknot.

The impact of Kano's mere presence, of which he is well aware, in a macho all-male environment is seismic, especially upon the confounded Shinsengumi leadership: Beat Takeshi's alert, concerned captain and Yoichi Sai's aggressive commander.

Some of the men are repelled by Kano, while others, no matter to what degree they are in denial, are stirred by his beauty. Kano is admitted to the militia along with another youth, Hyozo Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano), a free-thinking type who is instantly attracted to Kano and is quick to make a pass, only to be swiftly rejected.

It would seem that Kano is not so much in denial over his sexual orientation, which remains ambiguous, but has largely channeled his desires into the pleasure he takes in slaughter and in exerting power over others as a shameless and sometimes daring tease.

So here you have an utterly fearless samurai of stunning ability and courage--i.e, the perfect warrior--but whose appearance and selectively seductive manner not only keep the militia in a constantly unsettled state but also, inevitably, invites the slurs of enemies, which means the Shinsengumi has itself been slurred.

In short, Kano wreaks havoc in the lives of men dedicated to living up to the rigid samurai code of honor; Ryuichi Sakamoto's lush, captivating score expresses perfectly Kano's personality and its effect, sometimes darkly amusing in its consequences, other times tragic.

It takes a director with exceptional talent, skill and experience to explore ambiguity in all aspects of human nature and behavior, and Oshima has created a film of resilient, downright tensile strength that ends on a satisfyingly ironic note.

Backed by a sterling cast and the understated cinematography of Toyomichi Kurita, Oshima brings a contemporary perspective to a complex situation during an equally complex and crucial era in Japanese history.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: spare but brutal samurai violence, some language, complex adult themes and situations.



Ryuhei Matsuda: Samurai Sozaburo Kano

Beat Takeshi (Takeshi Kitano): Capt.

Toshizo Hijikata

Tadanobu Asano: Samurai Hyozo Tashiro

A New Yorker Films release of a Shochiku presentation in association with Bac films, Le Studio Canal Plus and the Recorded Picture Co. Writer-director Nagisa Oshima. Based on the novellas "Maegami no Sozaburo" and "Sanjogawara Ranjin" from "Shinsengumi Keppuro" by Ryotaro Shiba. Executive producers Oshima Productions, Eiho Oshima, Shigehiro Nakagawa, Kazuo Shimizu. Co-producers Nouyoshi Otani, Jean Labadie, Jeremy Thomas. Cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita. Music Ryuichi Sakamoto. Costumes Emi Wada. Production designer Yoshinobu Nishioka. In Japanese, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Exclusively at the Nuart through Thursday, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.

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