With sword in hand, Appellate Judge Dan Mancini dissects this samurai flick.
Our review of Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics: Criterion Collection, published November 1st, 2005, is also available.
"This is the cruelest form of tyranny."—Isaburo Sasahara
[Editor's Note: This review is part of a full examination of Criterion's Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics boxed set.]
Masaki Kobayashi was a troublemaker, a boat-rocker, the great iconoclast of the classic era of Japanese cinema. Among the directors who entered adulthood prior to the beginning of World War II, he is distinguished by his relentless, uncompromising challenges to Japan's cultural assumptions, and by his radical deconstruction of genre forms like chambara. A left-wing pacifist much like the hero of his nine-hour epic trilogy, The Human Condition, he was physically beaten for refusing to follow orders during his inscription in the military and combat service on the Manchurian front in the 1930s. He also flatly refused to be promoted above the rank of private.
This biographical information is important because it lends weight and authenticity to the resolute anti-authoritarianism on display in pictures like The Human Condition and Harakiri. Kobayashi didn't merely talk radical politics, he lived by and suffered for his own deeply held beliefs about the role of the individual in society. Many Japanese artists in many media explore the question of the individual's duty to society. Kobayashi was more interested in the question of society's duty to the individual.
Facts of the Case
The story begins in 1725, during the peaceful middle years of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and concerns an internal struggle among the Matsudaira clan. When Lady Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa, Yojimbo), one of the daimyo's concubines, strikes him in an apparent fit of jealousy, she is exiled from the castle. Because she is the mother of Lord Matsudaira's newborn son, Kikuchiyo, the lord's superintendent makes arrangements for her to be married to Yogoro Sasahara (Go Kato, Fighting Elegy), the eldest son of one of Matsudaira's most loyal vassals, Isaburo Sasahara (Toshiro Mifune, Seven Samurai). The Sasaharas are hesitant to take the shamed woman into their household, but do their duty to the clan. Ichi's compliance, kindness, and gentle demeanor win the hearts of Isaburo and Yogoro. The young man's love for Ichi only intensifies when he learns the true reason she attacked the lord. The couple has a daughter, Tomi. Settling into old age, Isaburo retires and installs Yogoro as head of the Sasaharas.
Their lives are thrown into tumult, though, when Matsudaira's eldest son dies of an illness and Kikuchiyo becomes heir. As mother of the heir, Ichi must be restored to the castle, but Yogoro is reluctant to give her up. The majority of the Sasaharas are eager to comply with the lord in order to avoid his ire, but Isaburo—who, after years of being henpecked in a marriage of convenience, is deeply moved by the young couple's genuine love—is resolute in backing Yogoro. A deadly feud between the Sasaharas and the rest of the Matsudaira clan becomes inevitable when the lord and his advisors kidnap Ichi instead of presenting Yogoro with a formal request for her return. The move, which would make Yogoro the wronged party in the eyes of the Shogunate, is a major miscalculation and Lord Matsudaira does everything he can to keep the situation quiet so that he can maintain face. Unfortunately, Isaburo happens to be the clan's most skilled swordsman: If Matsudaira resorts to force in order to resolve the situation, the death toll among his retainers and officials is likely to be high…and difficult to explain to the Shogun.
In Samurai Rebellion—as in Kobayashi's most famous picture, Harakiri—the entire political system of feudal Japan and the samurai code of fealty (Bushido) that was its foundation are set in direct conflict with the more intimate social foundations of marriage and family. In this way, Kobayashi exposes the moral bankruptcy and absence of compassion in a duty-driven code of honor that fails to value the individual human being. Ichi is the catalyst of this revelation: her sexual union with Matsudaira is false because it is not built on love and mutual respect, while her marriage to Yogoro is the real deal. Bushido fails as a system for governing the lives of real human beings when it demands that she leave the true relationship in order to protect the honor of the false one.
The strength of Kobayashi and screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto's (Rashomon, The Sword of Doom) storytelling is their ability to express moral complexity by way of some deeply intriguing turns of plot. Samurai Rebellion's story is built on progressively intricate convolutions of the regulations governing ceremony and propriety in feudal Japan. The convolutions eventually (and delightfully) snare the corrupt powerbrokers in their own deceptive political machinations. In one of the picture's most satisfying scenes, one of Lord Matsudaira's lackeys arrives at the Sasahara fief with orders for Isaburo and Yogoro to commit seppuku. To Yogoro's surprise, his father agrees to obey the order—on the condition that the heads of Matsudaira, his superintendent, and his chamberlain are brought to him as recompense for their conspiracy to kidnap Ichi. This is a typically Kobayashian turn of plot: Isaburo maintains his honor and heroism by accepting the dictates of Bushido, while simultaneously exposing the cravenness, corruption, and hypocrisy of his superiors by demanding that they do the same, even though he knows they will not.
Samurai Rebellion is a chambara that doesn't get around to swordplay until its final act. The director builds enough tension and suspense into the political maneuvering to make the film feel tightly paced despite the absence of action. There's a visceral thrill when swords are finally drawn, with Toshiro Mifune and his feral physicality dishing out the punishment. Mifune's top billing is a function of his stature in Japanese cinema, not the centrality of his role in the film. But his fans need not fear that Isaburo is the sort of walk-on, rote character that is all too common in the vast sea of his disappointing work during this post-Kurosawa phase of his career. Isaburo is complex and dynamic. He is the picture's moral compass, its wise elder statesman, and Mifune is given a wealth of screen time. The character's only flaw is his set up as a henpecked husband. It's a great source of comedy, especially given Mifune's powerful screen presence, but in the end it's more a plot contrivance than an organic character attribute. Despite flaws in the presentation of Isaburo's marriage, Samurai Rebellion offers Japanese film buffs the subtle joy of the friendship between Isaburo and Matsudaira's other great swordsman, Tatewaki Asano (played by Tatsuya Nakadai). After their antagonistic face-offs in Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Sanjuro, it's entertaining to watch Mifune and Nakadai interact as compatriots. The camaraderie between their hardened warrior characters is warm and genuine.
Though Mifune's presence is powerful, Yogoro and Ichi are the true stars of the show. Go Kato's chiseled features had already made him a bona fide movie heartthrob by the time of his appearance in Samurai Rebellion, but Ichi is the juiciest role in the picture and Yoko Tsukasa's performance easily steals the show. Tsukasa's work in the film is magnificent. Our sympathy for her effectively paints Matsudaira as a villain, though he spends two-thirds of the picture off screen. Ichi is an honorable woman whose sense of duty is grounded in her love for Yogoro and their child. The character's controlled passion makes the tragedy of her story that much more poignant.
Samurai Rebellion is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection (spine number 310) both as a stand-alone disc and as part of the four-disc Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics boxed set. According to Criterion's liner notes, the disc's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer comes directly from a composite 35mm fine-grain master, digitally remastered. There are fine vertical emulsion scratches and some flicker in the picture's opening shots, and a single shot near the end is washed out and a bit hazy (it almost looks like it was sourced from video). Otherwise, the black-and-white image is stable and subtle, with strong detail and excellent contrast. Audio has also been restored, and is a simple but clean center-speaker presentation of the original mono track.
The DVD is light on extras. On the disc itself, three minutes of Samurai Rebellion-specific excerpts from the 1993 video interview of Kobayashi by director Masahiro Shinoda (Samurai Spy), excerpts of which also appear on Criterion's release of Harakiri. The movie's Japanese theatrical trailer is also archived. A fold-out insert booklet offers a concise but informative essay by the West's premiere Japanese film expert, Donald Richie.
If you buy only one of the quartet of titles that make up Criterion's Rebel Samurai boxed set, make it Masaki Kobayashi's Samurai Rebellion. It's the best of the lot.
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Scales of Justice
• 1993 Interview Excerpts with Director Masaki Kobayashi
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