Live by Night
The key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
Nagisa Oshima's "Taboo" tells a story set in the late Japanese samurai period of the 1800s, when a youth of unusual beauty is admitted into a training program for warriors, stirring lust among his comrades and even a superior officer. When the film premiered at Cannes in May 2000, the joke was that it would be retitled "Not to Ask, Not to Tell." Homosexuality in the military is as old as armies and was sometimes encouraged as a way of inspiring soldiers to bond; we gather that within the closed world of the Japanese samurai, it was acknowledged as a fact of life. The problem with Sozaburo Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda) is not that he is gay, but that he is so beautiful, so feminine, that he is a distraction and inspires jealousy. He seems fully aware of his appeal and enhances it with a kind of smoldering passivity that dares the other men to start something.
The movie takes place in Kyoto around 1865, in the last days of traditional samurai. Threatened by new kinds of fighting, new channels of power and the opening of the country to the West, the men of the Shinsen-gumi troop adhere all the more rigidly to the samurai code, even enforcing death as a punishment for severe violations. It is strange that a candidate as effeminate as Sozaburo would be one of two finalists chosen after sword-fighting auditions, but then again there is a look in the eye of Capt. Hijikata (Beat Takeshi) that hints of hidden agendas.
When Beat Takeshi directs, it is under his real name of Takeshi Kitano. As director and star, he is known for violent macho thrillers, and so his casting here is provocative; imagine John Wayne in "Red River," with a stirring beneath his chaps every time he looks at Montgomery Clift. Hijikata is not gay, but Sozaburo is beautiful enough to inspire a lonely man to relax his usual standards. A samurai clearly in love with Sozaburo is Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano), a brawny type who feels competitive because both men were recruited at the same time.
Is Sozaburo capable of fighting well enough to carry his weight in the samurai army? He turns out be the best of the young swordsmen, and when a superior orders him to carry out the execution of a disobedient samurai, he beheads the offender without a blink. The thing about Sozaburo, indeed, is that he hardly blinks at anything: Even while another samurai is having sex with him, he hardly seems to notice.