#1 in my ranking of Masaki Kobayashi’s films.
Masaki Kobayashi was a great Japanese filmmaker who’s been overshadowed by Akira Kurosawa over time. He worked in the samurai genre several times, much as Kurosawa did, but he was far more political. His work functioned as scathing critiques of contemporary Japanese life, in particular the propensity for people to set aside their own desires and rights for the efficacy of the larger system around them. What Kobayashi does so well is to generalize that point thematically and wrap it in the package of the samurai movie. Samurai movies, like any genre, have a lot of room to tell very different kinds of stories. Kobayashi used his in a particular way that differed rather greatly from the more entertainment focused Kurosawa, but they still firmly sit within the samurai genre, embracing certain tropes like calls for seppuku, the intricacies of the shogunate, and katana-based duels.
The movie has two different official titles. The Japanese title was Rebellion: Receive the Wife, and the American title was Samurai Rebellion. Kobayashi thought that the only appropriate title would have been simply Rebellion. The Japanese title is weird (it probably works better in the original Japanese), but the American title is pure exploitation, implying some kind of epic battle between Samurai and Lord that never really materializes. Kobayashi wasn’t interested in the movement of armies, but in the movement of the individual. The fights that eventually take over are small scale, but they affect rather deeply because of the extended time he spends building the story itself.
The local lord has grown tired of his mistress and mother to one of his children, Ichi, and decided to cast her off by forcing her to marry the son of his vassal, Isaburo Sasahara. Isaburo is afraid of what this match could mean for his family, tries desperately to sidestep it, but it’s of no use. Yogoro, his son, accepts the marriage and two years pass happily. Yogoro and Ichi grow to love each other deeply, especially when Ichi explains the reason for her expulsion from the castle where she had accepted her dehumanizing role as the lord’s breeder only to see him bring another mistress in after she had finished recuperating from her first pregnancy. The new mistress’s happy acceptance of her role tipped Ichi over and she became physically violent towards them both, leading to her expulsion. Both Isaburo and Yogoro recognize Ichi as the great woman she is and embrace her fully, as opposed to Yogoro’s mother and brother who never treat her with more than the minimum respect expected.
When the lord’s first born dies suddenly, he needs to maintain his progeny, so he accepts Ichi’s first born as his own and demands Ichi’s return to him. This causes a rift in the Sasahara household as Isaburo is the only one to stand firm on Ichi’s side with even Yogoro, after heavy pressure and in private, finally breaks down and begs Ichi to return to the castle. Isaburo, though, convinces his son to stand by his wife, but the lord’s men kidnap her anyway, leading to a confrontation between the lord’s men and the Sasahara family that can only be settled in blood.
What makes this movie so great is how it manages to interweave through its thematic point and narrative technique. Without even knowing anything about Kobayashi’s views of contemporary Japanese culture, this is a story that can still appeal to viewers as we watch an individual stand up against an oppressive and unjust system. It’s the sort of stuff that movies have been churning out for decades, but through the specifics, especially centered on Toshiro Mifune’s Isaburo, the film gains real emotional power. His early need for acceptance in the system, setting aside his own desires for decades including marrying a woman he never loved, transforming steadily into rebellion as he watches a true love born of injustice and being torn apart in the same way is told convincingly through the script as well as Mifune’s commanding performance. It’s easy to see why he would choose this moment to stand up against the system he had invested in for so long, to protect his son and adoptive daughter from the whims of their lord.
There’s one more narrative element to touch on, and that’s Isaburo’s friend Tatewaki. The movie starts with the two demonstrating swords for their lord on straw men with the lord talking about how the two are equal matches in swordplay and that they never duel in order to preserve the honor of their respective families. Tatewaki ends up as a supportive ear on which Isaburo can rely on through his ordeal even to the point that Tatewaki can reject his lord’s steward’s order to attack Isaburo by citing the law that it’s not his job to go after lawbreakers, his position limiting himself to border control. Eventually, Isaburo and Tatewaki have to come to blows as Isaburo has completely rejected the oppressive system and Tatewaki must remain loyal. The subtext is of the unjust system pitting two friends against each other in a potential loss of life that is unnecessary and wasteful.
This movie is great. It’s absolutely fantastic and heart breaking. I’ve seen several of Kobayashi’s films including the trilogy The Human Condition and Harakiri, and I think this is the best of the ones I’ve seen from the director. It’s involving and sad, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen as it unfolded.