Made seven years after his most well-known samurai masterpiece Harakiri (1962), Masaki Kobayashi’s neglected but equally exceptional Samurai Rebellion is an equally scathing critique of Japan’s feudal system. Kobayashi’s films were shaped strongly by his experiences in the Second World War and carried themes that reflected those experiences and were characterized by their strong anti-establishment sentiments. This is evident especially in his The Human Condition trilogy.
Unlike some of the samurai films of his contemporaries, Kobayashi’s went beyond sword fights and macho confrontations and put a strong emphasis on the role of family and women. Kobayashi had always been critical of authoritarian power and has made it clear himself in one of his interviews. Just like the protagonists in his films, Kobayashi detested “the system”. Just as how Harakiri made a mockery of the bushido code, Kobayashi once again returned to similar territory with Samurai Rebellion.
While Harakiri focused on poor, unemployed and disgraced samurai going against the feudal structure, Samurai Rebellion is about characters who are part of that structure and occupy higher positions within it. Toshiro Mifune plays Isaburo Sasahara, a middle-aged vassal serving under a powerful lord who governs the Aisu clan. Isaburo is continually referred to as the most powerful swordsman of them all, whose formidable skills are matched only by that of his friend Tatewaki Asano’s (played by Tatsuya Nakadai), another warrior serving under the same lord.
Isaburo and his elder son Yogoro find themselves in a predicament when Yogoro is forced to marry a woman named Yichi, an ex-mistress of their lord. Isaburo strongly rejects this proposal but is slowly forced to accept so as to avoid the lord’s resentment. As time passes, Isaburo observes that Ichi is not the loathsome woman that everyone made her out to be, but is actually a kind-hearted soul who comes to love his son. Ichi soon gives birth to a daughter named Tomi. Yogoro also learns that while she was the lord, his wife had mothered a son named Kikuchiyo who stays with him at his residence and is to be his natural heir.
One day, Kikuchiyo passes away and the lord sends his men to get Ichi back so that she can be his wife and provide him with another heir. Isaburo, now seeing the intense love that has developed between Yogoro and Ichi, fearlessly questions his lord’s orders and along his son, vehemently opposes it much to the chagrin of not only the lord’s men but also his shrewd wife. The lord and his subordinates see this sign of insolence unforgivable and are, naturally, offended. The succeeding events force Isaburo to ditch his loyalty to the clan and his decisions, along with his son’s, slowly build up to a tense and violent confrontation with not only his superiors but also his loyal friend Tatewaki.
I was struck by how much Mifune’s Isaburo character reminded me of Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Of course Samurai Rebellion came out much before The Godfather but there are some elements here that resemble those in Mario Puzo’s epic mafia saga. For one, the father relinquishing his position to his son and then trusting him to take the right decision. And then there is also the manner in which Isaburo calculates his moves so that he can deliver the final blow. Isaburo’s wisdom and skills are constantly being compared with his swordplay by his friend Tatewaki (the character played by Nakadai).
“Push and you step back. Push, you step back farther. But at the last moment you change from defense to offense. You never attack. You wait till your opponent tires and quits”, points out Tatewaki. Then there is Isaburo’s weak younger son Bunzo, who reminded me so much of Fredo. Now that I have watched the film for the second time, I am having a hard time figuring out which one of Mifune’s performances is his greatest. Okay, I think I am going to settle for this one. If you have noticed his performances in the Kurosawa films, they are slightly over-the-top yet still they all manage to be great performances.
But here you see a different dimension of Mifune, a more realistic side to his performance that was not seen in any of his other films. In the first segment of the film, Isaburo is shown as a man who conveys to his son the intense dissatisfaction that resulted from marrying a woman whom he never liked. And then when he realizes that his son is being put through the exact same circumstances that he had gone through in his younger days, a slow transformation occurs and by the end of the film, what you see is a completely changed man – an embodiment of full-blown wrath.
It’s also hard to not overlook the small similarities it has with the story of Helen of Troy. Ichi, being a former concubine of their lord, is slowly accepted into the household and eventually gains the respect and admiration of Isaburo. It’s Ichi, just like Helen, that serves as the catalyst for the tragic events that follow later. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the film also has so much in common in Kobayashi’s Harakiri and while I am of the opinion that it is a great film, I slightly prefer Samurai Rebellion over it as I think it’s a much stronger film and less melodramatic, despite the fact that both stories end on an unhappy note.
Seeing Tatsuya Nakadai with Toshiro Mifune in any film is always a cause for celebration. Nakadai’s character is kind of like a positive version of his antagonist character from Kurosawa’s Sanjuro, and his motivation to engage in a showdown with Mifune’s character is very touching. Kobayashi’s directorial style is characterized by a razor-sharp precision and impeccable composition that is otherwise seen in the works of his contemporaries like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. The masterful lighting and framing of shots and the fluid pacing all combine together to produce a kind of rare meditative experience unlike any other.