Akira Kurasawa's The Seven Samurai (1954) stands unchallenged as celluloid's defining elegy for Japan's heroic warrior class, shown nobly dying off, already tragically redundant, during the civil wars of the 16th century. But some fashion of samurai stuck it out stubbbornly for centuries after, as evidenced by, in 1865, the still-extant Shinsegumi clan in Nagisa Oshima's fascinating, tantalizing revisionist Taboo.
These Kyoto-based warriors (this part is true history) had distinguished themselves a year earlier at the battle of Ikeyada. Now the downslide is starting, though they keep up the iconic appearance of samurai at the top of their game, sitting impressively crosslegged on their mats in their spiffy robes, stoically observing potential recruits auditioning to join their mighty company.
More and more, however, the Shinsegumi are forced to pick from the lower classes, sons of traders and even out-and-out peasants. Potentially disastrous: character has been ruled out as a factor in choosing initiates. Instead, everything comes down to prowess at swordsplay, which is why, against their better judgment, the Shinsegumi leadership invite two unlikely young men to join their clan: Hyozo Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano), an excitable low-caste type, and Sozaburo Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda), who, with his Modigliani almond eyes, rose-petal lips, ponytail and bare feet, looks less a combatant than a bedeviling young woman.
Director Oshima, left-wing and impolitic, was the first in history to show penetration in an art movie, for the groundbreaking 1976 In the Realm of the Senses. This time, as he explains, he's out to challenge the traditional sexual ethos of samurai movies: "In the past, no one dared touch the subject of homosexuality, whether it was latent or overt. In my opinion, one cannot understand the world of samurai without showing the fundamental homosexual aspect."
Akira Kurosawa, a macho macho moviemaker, might be groaning in his grave realizing how, in Taboo, Oshima has toyed with, turned upside-down, the he-man, idyllic conception of samurai. The lovely-locked Kano causes havoc to the Shinseguma clan, who are, with a few exceptions, a bunch of Kyoto closet queens!
The guys either blurt out to Kano their desire to sleep with him (A samurai-in-heat: "I'd give my life to wake up to the nightingales song after holding you in my arms all night.") or, as the discreet English subtitle explains, they "lean that way." Each accuses the others of being secretly smitten.
Kano gets off on all the attention, becoming quickly the lover of Sozaburo but also, promiscuously, the secret squeeze of several others in uniform, as they make the beast of a back (their's) and a bottom (his). "Why did you join?" Kano is asked about becoming a Shinsegumi, and he smiles coyly. In answer, Oshima cuts to the barracks at night, a hundred semi-undressed male bodies.
Undeniably, Kano's licentiousness distracts the horny men from attentiveness to their samurai duties. But there's far more to worry about from this minx-like, epicene young man. Beneath Kano's flirtatious lashes are the coldest eyes; and it's eerie and inhuman for even the most veteran warrior about how easily Kano carries out an order to execute an errant samurai. He slashes off the head, then holds it matter-of-factly before him to show his commander, with the amorality of a cat showing off in its jaws a broken-necked mouse.
Samurai noir? The one-second death by sword of a surprised character named Toshikaro replicates (intentionally? coincidentally?) the quick-as-a-blink murder by gunfire of operative Archer in the prototypal The Maltese Falcon. Noir is the genre that the piano music of Ryuichi Sakamoto evokes, especially the paranoiac motif which plays over Kano in closeup. He's a fem "femme fatale"; and the second time he's asked why he joined the samurai tribe, Kano replies, unsettlingly, "To have the right to kill."
Taboo evolves into a murder mystery, as dead bodies, sliced by swords, pile up. There's even a kind of amateur detective on duty, Toshizo Hijikata (cult actor/filmmaker Takeshi "Beat" Kitano), contemplative captain of the Shinsegumi. He is the first to surmise that Kano and Sozaburo are lovers, from the odd way they swordfight together. But by the time he really figures out Kano it is, alack, too late. He spits, impotently cuts down a cherry tree. Oshima: "For me, this gesture symbolizes the destiny of the samurai, in other words, their end."