Taboo, which has its premiere at the New York Film Festival this weekend, could be considered an event within the event. Nagisa Oshima is Japan’s greatest living filmmaker, and his first theatrical feature in 14 years is an action film at once baroque and austere, hypnotic and opaque—a samurai drama punctuated by thwacking kendo matches in which the romantic swordsmen keep falling in love . . . with each other.
Radically reconfiguring two novellas by Ryotaro Shiba, Japan’s bestselling author of historical fiction, Taboo (previously billed as Gohatto) is an appropriately fatalistic, drolly deadpan, and elegantly precise restatement of the 68-year-old filmmaker’s career-long concerns. From his aptly named Cruel Story of Youth (1960), through his New Left critique Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969) and his hardcore masterpiece In the Realm of the Senses (1976), to the unreleased Max, Mon Amour (1986), in which Charlotte Rampling falls in love and carries on an affair with a chimpanzee, Oshima has reveled in the spectacle of unleashed sexual frustration disintegrating the dam of a repressive social order.
One of Oshima’s few period films—his last samurai film, the blatantly subversive Shiro Amakusa, the Christian Rebel, was made in 1962—Taboo is set in 1865, just before the dawn of Japanese modernization, during the final two years of the Tokugawa shogunate and its samurai supporters. The movie opens with the commander of the Shinsengumi militia and his captain (Takeshi Kitano) selecting new recruits—possibly for their looks as much as their swordsmanship. The new men include the teenage cutie Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda) and the somewhat older, confidently strutting Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano). Scarcely have they been inducted than Tashiro begins hitting on Kano: “Have you ever killed a man? Have you ever made love?”
Like Beau Travail, to which it has a family resemblance, Taboo is set in an all-male military universe. But where the Claire Denis film is a rapt meditation on the erotic obsession that one officer develops for an individual soldier, Taboo is more detached and analytical in its concern with love’s flowering within a highly restrictive system. The soon-to-be-obsolete samurai are governed by a strict code of conduct, serving a spy state populated by informants and characterized by the regulation of dress and decor. Under the regime of the samurai, homosexuality (repressed or otherwise) isn’t the love that dare not speak its name but, as in Oshima’s last military drama—and Taboo‘s main precursor—Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, the only form of sexual passion that exists. In the end, all the principals seem to “have that leaning,” as the captain is wont to say.
With his provocative bangs and rosebud lips, the enigmatic Kano is the universal object of desire—a pale, impassive vixen turning heads as he prances through the ranks. The coy lad is not only courted by Tashiro and several other samurais but obsessively observed by the captain, who, after he fights with both Kano and Tashiro, decides that they are lovers. Kano’s otherworldly presence and Kitano’s wryly contemporary performance, full of wheezy chuckles and bemused twitches, are but two of the subtly discordant elements Oshima throws into the mix. The film’s narrative is annotated by both voiceover and intertitles; the action is set to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s moody piano loop; the samurais are so fashionably attired they might have been outfitted by Commes des Garçons. (Indeed, their dojo’s decor anticipates that ostentatiously underfilled Chelsea emporium.)
Oshima began his career by rebelling against the classicism of Yasujiro Ozu: “I tried to eliminate completely all scenes with characters sitting on tatami while talking.” Breaking the filmmaker’s own taboo, Taboo favors a discreetly classical mise-en-scène—balanced geometric forms, slightly off-center compositions, a lacquered look, a burnished but muted gray-brown-black-white palette. (The production design is by the venerable Yoshinobu Nishioka, responsible for such period classics as Gate of Hell.) There are numerous ghostly moonlit scenes but, as befits a filmmaker who programmatically banned “green” from his first color film, only a single daytime exterior.
Oshima is a visual thinker, and his studio world of painted sunsets is humanized as a thicket of rumor, innuendo, and jealousy. Someone starts attacking Kano’s real and imagined lovers—including the sergeant who has been ordered to set Kano straight and take him out whoring. (The expedition to nighttown is the movie’s comic set piece.) In the end, the leadership decides to resolve the Kano question by having him fight Tashiro to the death—a clash by night in a suitably mist-shrouded kabuki-land.
Oshima’s films are typically predicated on a mixture of violence and restraint. (This is most apparent in his ambivalent attitude toward militarism.) If, as is sometimes said, he is a Marxist, it is of the Reichian persuasion—the economy that fascinates him is libidinal. Thus, the seductive Kano may be “evil,” but not for the reasons that the smitten captain imagines. In an offhand and uncommented-upon aside near the end of the film, the boy admits that he became a samurai so that he would be free to kill.
Karyn Kusama’s Girlfight sublimates more than a few Taboo-esque notions of sex and violence in its underdog celebration of a teenage athlete’s true grit. This widely heralded movie is a near-irresistible button-pusher that’s agile enough to hold a mirror to its own aspirations: The Sundance prize-winning filmmaker and her prize discovery, Michelle Rodriguez, merge in the image of a self-invented amateur boxer.
Diana (Rodriguez) is a Brooklyn high school senior with a major league scowl and a monster chip on her shoulder—a tough girl, but not a sexualized one. Sent by her crudely dismissive father on an errand to the gym where her dweebish younger brother Tiny (Ray Santiago) is unwillingly being taught to defend himself, she discovers her destiny—training in secret with a soulful ex-fighter (Jaime Tirelli), whom she pays with money stolen from Dad. The emphasis is on willpower and inner direction (little brother really wants to study art), and Rodriguez, who had no previous acting experience, reeks of raw conviction. She has a fighter’s slightly lopsided face, and when she narrows her eyes her whole body seems to glare. No other performance comes close—there are scenes where everyone seems to be acting in their own movie.
Diana is ambivalently attracted to the handsome boy who is the gym’s most promising prospect (Santiago Douglas), who, with an amusing nod to Rocky, is named Adrian. Conflicts in place, the movie’s second half proceeds from bout to bout pretty much by rote as Diana slugs it out with girls, boys, and her father. (The fights, mainly shown in unflashy middle-shot, are stolidly convincing.) Like Taboo, Girlfight has its inevitable climax in a battle between two lovers. Although the movie gives the so-called sweet science a new meaning, it conjures up a post-macho relationship that would take very special training to resolve.
Girlfight is all about winning; Monte Hellman’s 1971 Two-Lane Blacktop, revived for a week at Film Forum in a new 35mm print, harks back to the cult of the beautiful loser. The quintessential road movie, it was targeted directly at the counterculture—one of the first projects, along with Dennis Hopper’s even more venturesome Last Movie and Peter Fonda’s unjustly forgotten Hired Hand, released by the “youth” unit that studio boss Lew Wasserman created at Universal in response to Easy Rider.
“We blew it,” Fonda’s Captain America declared. Two-Lane Blacktop would be proof. Months before completion, this story of an existential cross-country drag race was hailed “an instant classic” by Rolling Stone, while Esquire (which published Rudy Wurlitzer’s screenplay as its April 1971 cover story) prematurely declared it “movie of the year.” The hype was unsustainable. When Two-Lane Blacktop finally opened that summer, audiences were indifferent and critics underwhelmed—although the Voice did praise Hellman’s “feeling for the vast inhuman distances which form the face of America and the character of her people.” Inhuman, to be sure. Redeemed largely by Warren Oates’s galvanizing portrayal of the speed freak con artist who pits his 1970 Pontiac GTO against the souped-up 1955 Chevy driven by one zombie rock star (James Taylor) and serviced by another (Dennis Wilson), Two-Lane Blacktop is a movie of achingly eloquent landscapes and absurdly inert characters.