Samurai Rebellion (1967)
Directed by Masaki Kobayashi

Samurai Rebellion
Joi-uchi: Hairyo tsuma shimatsu
Starring Toshiro Mifune (Isaburo), Go Kato (Yogoro), Yoko Tsukasa (Ichi), Tatsuya Nakadai (Tatewaki), Tatsuyoshi Ehara (Bunzo), Etsuko Ichihara (Kiku), Isao Yamagata (Tsuchiya), Shigeru Koyama (Takahashi the steward), Michiko Otsuka (Suga), Tatsuo Matsumura (Lord Matsudaira)
Screenplay by Shinobu Hashimoto
Cinematography by Kazuo Yamada

Toho Company, 121 minutes
B&W, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Criterion
(Part of the Rebel Samurai box set)

Samurai Rebellion shares a lot in common with Masaki Kobayashi's other great 1960s cruel jidai-geki classic, Harakiri. Both films were scripted by master screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, and as the title suggests, both stories deal with individual samurai striking back against the injustices of the samurai system. The hero of each movie is a middle-aged samurai deeply devoted to his family while cruel fate tears them apart, each narrative contains key information revealed through flashbacks, and each gradually builds up unbearable levels of tension before exploding in a violent climax. The great Tatsuya Nakadai links the films with his presence, though in Samurai Rebellion he yields the lead role to his frequent co-star Toshiro Mifune.

The movie opens with an iconic sequence of a closeup of a sword's edge blending into a closeup of Mifune's face and back again. At first it looks like a dissolve edit between two shots, but the transition is actually done in-camera by changing the focus of the lens. Mifune's character Isaburo is testing swords for the clan, along with his friend Takawari. A clansman remarks how he'd love to see Isaburo and Takawari have a duel, since they're the top two swordsmen around. With a big juicy tease dangled out there like that, you know damn good and well we're gonna see an awesome Mifune/Nakadai showdown before it's all over, or else Kobayashi would owe us our money back!

The core of the plot concerns Isaburo's efforts to find a wife for his eldest son Yogobo. None of the prospective brides considered thus far has met with the approval of Isaburo's overbearing wife Suga. But then the choice is taken out of the family's hands when the clan's steward notifies Isaburo that their lord has decided that Yogobo will marry the lord's former concubine, Ichi.

Isaburo is dismayed because he doesn't want his son to suffer a loveless arranged marriage, as he himself has done. Isaburo's ever-malcontent wife is also opposed, feeling that a discarded concubine isn't worthy of Yogobo. Suga has heard the gossip on Ichi, which is that Lord Mastudaira chose her to bear him an heir, since he only had one young son and needed further insurance for the clan's future. After Ichi gave birth to a boy, she found the lord cavorting with a new conubine. At this sight, Ichi reportedly flew into a rage and attacked both the concubine and the lord. Mastudaira therefore had to get her out of the castle, but as the mother to his child, Ichi couldn't be executed or banished. To keep her safely close by, the lord wanted her to marry and vassal and chose Yogobo.

Though he has led his whole life with passive obedience to the clan, Isaburo decides it would be entirely wrong for his son to marry this woman. He goes to the steward and tries to explain that his family is not worthy of the honor. But then Yogobo himself makes the decision to accept. He married Ichi, and the big surprise is that she's a wonderful person – not the wild harpy the gossip led them to expect. Yogobo and Ichi fall in love and have a daughter named Tomi.

When Yogobo asks Ichi about why she got expelled from the castle, she confirms that the story Suga heard was basically accurate, as a flashback sequence shows us. But the real truth was that Ichi completely despised Lord Mastudaira and found his touch repulsive. She resigned herself to being his concubine, and resolved to bear him a whole string of sons so that Mastudaira would have no need of further mistresses, and no more young women would have to suffer her fate. Then what was the first thing she saw after giving birth? The lord with a brand new concubine, even younger and smiling like a pampered queen. So when Ichi attacked the new girl and the lord, it wasn't out of jealousy, it was out of fury that her martyrdom had not quenched the lord's lust to destroy innocent women.

With Ichi and Yogobo now married and content, it looks like we might be in for a happy ending. But in fact, everything so far has been a setup for the real conflict. It turns out that Mastudaira's first son dies of illness, and so Ichi's son becomes the heir apparent. The clan rules it would be unseemly for the mother of the heir to be married to a mere vassal. So after forcing Ichi upon Yogobo, they now demand her back. It's not like the lord intends to marry Ichi or have anything to do with her – she's just going to be kept away in some corner of the castle so people can't talk about the impropriety of her being wed to a retainer. Yogobo and Isaburo maintain that this is ridiculous and shows no regard for human emotion, but the clan insists.

After a lot of back and forth and unsuccessful attempts at bargaining, the clan ends up tricking Ichi and abducting her back to the castle. Just to complete the atrocity, the clan demands that Yogobo issue a formal request for the castle to take Ichi back, even though they already have her, in order to make the whole thing legitimate. So Yogobo comes before the clan officials to present his written "request," which turns out to be a big "fuck you." It's a petition written by Isaburo demanding the return of his kidnapped daughter-in-law.

Then we cut to the most memorable scene in the film. The wet nurse the clan has appointed to care for Tomi arrives at Isaburo's home to find Isaburo and Yogobo preparing for a siege. Isaburo is cheerful and smiling, and casually explains that they've taken up the tatami mats so their feet won't slip in the blood. At to this point in the movie, we've seen Isaburo as a morose, broken man and filled with furious indignation. Now he's let all that go and seems content and fulfilled. Isaburo knows they're doomed, but in his defiance he finds purpose and meaning in life.

The clan's retribution inevitably comes crashing down on Isaburo and Yogobo. It all culminates in the anticipated face-off against Takawari, who has been coerced into going after Isaburo. A forced battle to the death between two old friends (and the two top actors of classic chambara) is a fitting conclusion to this examination of forced relationships and forced divisions subjugating free will.

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