The dynamics of men among men drive more movies than do dramas of women among women. Lawrence of Arabia is the most telling example: The only actual women who appear in it are either dead, veiled or seen from such great distances they become figments of dim memory. Director David Lean so organized his desert world as to make Lawrence the one ”woman“ on the scene: beautiful, unpredictable, adored, a source of fascinated attraction to every warrior and chieftain within shouting distance. (A similarly powerful magnetism is at work in Claire Denis‘ Beau Travail, released earlier this year, in which the all-male exertions of French Legionnaires are fused and energized by the unapologetically female viewpoint of the director.) Lawrence of Arabia advances a conscious idea that history is most forcefully and tragically made by men who are least comfortable in their own skins. Yet the film’s less conscious, even inadmissible idea is that, viewed from the heart, loyalty and honor are mere surface principles. At their deepest, they provide a language through which a man may express his most vulnerable feelings to another man without fear of humiliation. Men arguably dread defeat with the same animal pride that women dread feeling invisible: When a man‘s loyalty and honor have been betrayed, he can be as murderous as any jilted lover.
This, and related mysteries, form the molten core of Taboo, the new film by Nagisa Oshima, set in a samurai encampment in 1865 Kyoto. Tryouts are being held, and into the arena steps Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda), a beautiful young male so delicately put together as to be easily mistaken for female. It’s a mistake he revels in. The samurai master sitting in judgment on these contests (Japanese pop icon Takeshi ”Beat“ Kitano, long a creative partner of Oshima) watches this fragile faun make mincemeat out of a far more experienced opponent. Later he reflects in voice-over that the teenager‘s long hair and feminine white kimono embody a ”deliberate provocation for others to fight.“
All the samurai, new and old, are radically disturbed by Kano’s beauty. A fellow trainee fixates on him; an instructor takes him to a geisha house, only to send the courtesan away and jump the boy himself. In time, the jealousies spooking the regiment spark murders among the men. When the master must mentally fight past his own attraction to assess the source of all this havoc, Oshima orchestrates a delirious, half-comic ode in quick-cutting close-ups to the exquisite line of Kano‘s compressed lips, the downy folds of skin masking his dreamily blinking eyelids, his upright posture — all the menace to morale he so serenely embodies, just drawing breath. ”Why are you coaching him?“ the Master grills one samurai. ”Do you have leanings that way?“ ”No,“ replies the old swordsman, laughing a shade too nervously. ”But I’m beginning to see how a man can be unsettled.“
Part of the strange beauty and power of Taboo — so much of a piece with two of Oshima‘s previous masterworks, In the Realm of the Senses and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence — is that the obsessions consuming these men do not stem from anything so trite as homophobia. Indeed, the notion that some men might prefer sex with their own kind is taken in stride by these machos. What troubles them is the danger to any self-respecting warrior should he find himself in the grip of a force, especially a sexual attraction, stronger than his own will: a dread of defeat, of being exposed to the world (or worse, oneself) as an emotionally needy creature. Shame, not guilt, drives these men: Oshima conveys this very Japanese mental construct to a Western viewer with seamless immediacy.
This is Oshima’s first film in 14 years — he suffered a stroke in the mid-‘90s, from which he has since recovered. True to his rebel nature, he confounds the lush beauty he frames by dropping in textbook ”bad edits“ or allowing maddening leaps in the story, laced up in rows of intertitles that synopsize what we’ve missed. Such studied roughness and caprice is more than compensated for by Ryuichi Sakamoto‘s sublime score, which weaves synthesizer chords into sword blows, and creates a nocturnal fog in one’s ears so vivid, one can feel the cold. Above all, Oshima has fashioned a tale of men among men that feels familiar at first, then moves boldly into more enigmatic terrain.
Just as Sata, the heroine of In the Realm of the Senses, castrates and strangles her lover not out of hatred, but out of her ecstatic wish to deliver him from the prison of his masculinity, and herself from her overpowering need of him, Kano is no mere pretty boy confronting his fellow males with a wild-side attraction. Asked by his master why he wanted to be a samurai, he replies simply, ”So I could kill men.“ The line is uninflected, but reverberates through all that follows. Kano is a species of demon, perhaps an angelic avenger, on behalf of the world of women, of the vulnerability and overwhelming emotion the samurais have fought so hard (as men, in their folly, always fight so hard) to do without.#