Taboo

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Taboo

In spite of the few obvious differences in cultural traditions, moral codes, and 19th-century period trappings, Nagisa Oshima's haunted, unsettling Taboo may be the first feature to fully consider the hot-button issue of gays in the military since the dawn of the Clinton Administration. In a samurai training school in 1865 Kyoto, just as changing times threaten to push the warriors into obsolescence, 18-year-old Ryuhei Matsuda, the unit's most gifted prodigy, disrupts its macho rituals almost entirely by virtue of his appearance. An otherworldly, androgynous beauty with opaque eyes and delicate, womanly features—think David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth—Matsuda throws many of his fellow swordsmen into deep sexual confusion with his presence, even those who claim they're "not that way." Though they admire his cool efficiency as he goes about his business, Matsuda's superiors, particularly a hardened veteran played by Takeshi Kitano, worry that the group's all-important solidarity may be adversely affected. On the most superficial level, Taboo would appear to be a classic illustration of the conservative position that gay men pose an insidious threat to military unity. But leave it to Oshima, a master of ambiguous sexuality from early efforts such as 1960's Cruel Story Of Youth to 1976's notorious In The Realm Of The Senses, to muddy the issue in more intriguing ways. A persuasive argument could be made that Oshima's campy wit is meant to draw out the homoeroticism embedded in military rituals and parody its antiquated code of conduct. More likely still, the film was never intended to carry any such political baggage, though it will be hard for Americans to read it any other way. Keeping in line with Oshima's career, Taboo is an elegant and formally gorgeous look at sexual fluidity, marred only by a choppy structure and occasional lulls in storytelling. Passive and weirdly enigmatic, Matsuda's captivating cipher is countered by Kitano's trademark severity as the unit's captain, which makes his own helpless pangs of attraction all the more powerful. With his first film after a 14-year hiatus, Oshima picks up his career-long fascination with the perverse and confirms his ability to keep an audience feeling off-balance and distinctly uncomfortable.

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