Thursday, April 26, 2007

Review of Taboo

Nagisa Oshima (best known for his controversial work in the 1960’s and 1970’s) returned in 2000 for “Taboo” a tale of jealousy and fatalism in the late samurai period. Sozaburo Kano is a beautiful young warrior recently admitted into a samurai militia group along with Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano), who is immediately smitten. Tashiro isn’t the only one and under Captain Hijikata (Beat Takeshi Kitano) curious eye, an ever-expanding number of men fall under Kano’s spell.

Oshima’s talent as well as his New Wave experimental tendencies are on display within the film. The cinematography in particular is beautiful; rich with atmosphere and something between danger and eroticism. The films starts out dominated by gold light and crisp textures but shifts menacingly into dark hues of blue and black as the film progresses, culminating in a finale of moonlit fog and fear.

The story takes on a slippery, brooding perspective as the narrative slips between third-person observation, first-person inner monologues (pulled from Hijikata’s uncertain mind) and omniscient intertitles that seem to echo social structures (rumors, code of conducts and so on). The unconventional combination makes the audience unsure whether they are being hit over the head with all the facts or being kept utterly in the dark about the truth.

[SPOILERS AND SPECULATION AHEAD]

Even with my second viewing, the ending is difficult to interpret and might make or break the film for some viewers depending on whether they prefer contemplation or clear-cut closure. As best as I can tell, Kano’s beauty has always been a burden for him but also a source of power over others. His gentle good-looks mask a cold-blooded nature and a lust for violence aimed at his suitors whom he secretly resents. Something Hijikata says at the very end may imply that he was abused as a youth but this could be me applying an overly-simple Freudian model

In the disturbing finale it appears that Kano has arranged, with infinite craftiness, to murder all his obsessive lovers. Even more disturbing is the implication that Kano can only love those who reject him: the officer in charge of taking Kano to the brothel and quite possibly the repressed Soji Okita, too.

In the final moments, one is left to believe that Soji returns to kill Kano, presumably ending the cycle of jealousy and intrigue. The final shot shows Hijikata cutting down a cherry blossom tree with his sword, an image of beauty and destruction. The beauty/destruction dichotomy is ultimately one of the central themes, epitomized in Kano’s disarming, seductive character and the image of the severed tree. A further Freudian reading (which I am still not sure is appropriate to this context) might be that the final moment is a symbolic (self-) castration in the wake of Kano’s revealed Machiavellian schemes and imminent death.

Walrus Rating: 8

3 comments:

Mad Dog said...

So I take it this movie had something to do with the samurai tradition of male love? Your review sort of hinted at that, but I wasn't clear.

Walrus said...

The samurai tradition of male love is definitely the overt theme of the movie, but the subtext is extremely dense. My plot summary is minimal in this case because the actual events for most of the film are largely irrelevant (as plot), or a least interchangable. It is the events left off-screen that tend to be the most important.

Even in the comments section, I hesitate to say anything more than that. I wish I could better convey how interesting this movie is, but mostly I am left urging you to watch it yourself. If you see it and can suggest a few lines to make the description clearer, it would be very much appreciated.

Mad Dog said...

Well, re-reading the title of the movie, I guess I was being a little dense. But it does sound interesting. Especially with the addition of Takeshi Kitano.