Nagisa Oshima has never been a particularly commercial director. Despite the fact that Madonna gave a glowing cover blurb to "In the Realm of the Senses" for its new video release, and despite the modest success of "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence," Oshima has remained an art-house phenomenon in North America, and his fans probably contain a disproportionate number of film students. His inexplicably beautiful new film, "Taboo," begins in the manner of many Japanese samurai movies. The stately camera sits low to the ground and observes the controlled violence of a Kendo match as if it were a sacrament. Bold inter-titles list the various codes of the Bushido (never to act in self-interest, etc.). And then at night, Tashiro slips into Kano's sleeping bag and whispers in his ear, with panting urgency, "I don't want to die without making love to you." This is probably where the old-school Kurosawa fans start heading for the exit lights.
In reality, homosexuality amongst samurai wasn't unheard of, and Oshima gives us an insightful understanding of its workings in this rarified atmosphere. The story takes place in Kyoto in 1865, just after most samurai were forced out of existence. The Shinsengumi were a militia group who opposed the restoration of the Emperor at the time, and so they were isolated not only by their obsolete code of behavior, but also by their opposition to the dominant political forces of the day. They occupy their immaculate barracks with a very vigilant sense of honor, which is of the utmost importance because any act of dishonor will swiftly result in a beheading. When the first execution occurs, the blood sprays out of the severed neck like a raging geyser, as if years of stifling control and self-sacrifice were finally being released in one obscene torrent.
The power imbalance that occurs within this rigid environment begins with the arrival of an ethereally lovely, and uncommonly skilled samurai named Kano, played by Ryuhei Matsuda, who could easily pass as a woman (Oshima's camera plays up his elusiveness and femininity). When an equally skilled warrior, Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano), falls in lust with Kano, their gayness is treated at first with level-headed equanimity by their captain (played by Beat Takeshi). But then some of the other warriors start lusting after Kano, and some of them start turning up dead. If it sounds like there's an element of melodrama to these proceedings, it's overcome by the unique set of emotions that Oshima is dealing with. These samurai don't waste much time on overt guilt or shame those feelings only reveal themselves indirectly. Although they frankly admit to their sexual appetites in terse, staccato bursts of dialogue, the real workings of their relationships begin to manifest themselves as the dynamics of their Kendo matches begin to shift.