Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Ryan Watches a Motion Picture #15: Taboo (1999)

I love samurai films. When I think about what taking in cinema feels like, I get certain senses of things bubbling in my brain, maybe a loose, iconic image. One of those is usually of a samurai, holding a sword out and standing in an elegant posture, just waiting. Can’t get enough of that. I’m always willing to watch a samurai film, and once I heard a few things about Oshima's Taboo, I was positively fuming with feudal fascination. The film’s about Kano, a young samurai who takes another samurai in his regiment as his lover, and when news of their relationship spreads, other samurai begin to seek Kano's affections.

Now, I think Taboo lacks the gravity it might have achieved if it had focused a bit more. The plot tends to get a bit lost at times, and frequently a change in the story and the introduction of a new character makes the film seem flippant. But Taboo makes up for it with its visually arresting cinematography. The drifting, ethereal camerawork is wonderfully atmospheric and fluid, and does well to highlight the sense that we are observers. The action sequences are elegant, and they really swept me up. Deft use of steadicam pulls you in and around the samurai blade strikes without resorting to the shaky camera style that's so fucking popular in movies today. Sorry, rage.

I was glad to see that the film contains a questioning of the samurai's role in the rigid feudal Japanese caste system of the 1800s, and doesn't, like many samurai films, revel in the romance of honour and glory that you might well imagine when you read the word 'samurai'. There's an interesting parallel in effect where the samurai hegemony and its penchant for using men's lives for political posturing is matched with the sexual hegemony, and the men entangled in love affairs with their fellow soldiers are secretly loathe to give up their lives in the name of the samurai order. There's even some attempt to hetero Kano, but attempts fail, and in the end, even the officers high up in their chain of command question their sexual roles, while paradoxically, Kano’s lovers come to use Kano as the military system uses them - for their own ends.

The film's pretty casual acceptance of queer lifestyle is, to my knowledge, not too consistent with feudal Japanese culture, but it serves to put a new spin on such an influential and pervasive genre, and Taboo is worth a look.

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