dir. Nagisa Oshima
Opens Fri Feb 23 at the Egyptian.

Taboo, set in Japan in 1865, tells the story of a bewitchingly handsome young militia recruit. Director Nagisa Oshima, best known for In the Realm of the Senses (1976), remains fascinated by the intersection of passion and responsibility. What's taboo in this movie is not love between men--Oshima and all the characters in the movie are utterly matter-of-fact about homosexual preferences--but rather the disorder that results from love. Ryuhei Matsuda, as the young recruit, wreaks havoc among his fellows and his commanders; even the lieutenant who serves as Oshima's stand-in questions his own ability to withstand Matsuda's spell.

The imagery built into the story is droll. As a love object, Matsuda is passive; but he is also an expert swordsman, obviously a double entendre in Japanese as well as English. Given his flaccidity in love and his sinewy vigor with the sword, Matsuda doesn't just have a penis, he is a penis. And in case we didn't get the joke, Matsuda beheads a disgraced militiaman before our very eyes with an orgasmic spurt of blood.

Like many movie nuts, I have a perpetual double feature running in my head. Today I'm mentally screening Taboo with Malena, Giuseppe Tornatore's vehicle for Monica Bellucci as a Black Shirt fraternizer. Malena is dopey, but Taboo has enough ideas for two. Bellucci fits conventional Western ideals of female comeliness like a Disney cartoon girl; when computer-generated imaging reaches maturity, it will create Monica Bellucci. Matsuda started out a little too Hello Kitty for my taste, but as the movie progressed I came to see him more and more through the eyes of his enamored and tormented fellows, as a knockout. Bellucci is without affect except for a certain wan dejection; Matsuda is sly and mocking. Bellucci's beauty arouses evil in everyone around her; Matsuda is himself evil. Tornatore is implicated by his own film; no amount of directorial tsk-tsking at the way his villagers treat Bellucci distracts us from his own exploitative, cruddy take on her. Oshima, on the other hand, seems pretty clear-headed about exploitation. He's been at it for a long, long time.