Samurai Rebellion (1967) was my first taste of Masaki Kobayashi’s filmic style, and it certainly won’t be the last—the picture is as powerful, meditative, and gripping as anything Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, or the other Japanese masters have created. Set during peacetime in 1725, Samurai Rebellion examines the morality and nobility of fading swordsman Isaburo Sasahara (Toshirô Mifune) and his son Yogoro (Takeshi Katô), as they fight their clan’s decision to rob Yogoro of his wife Ichi (Yôko Tsukasa), who had been unceremoniously dumped—exiled, if you will—upon the family for violent misconduct towards their Lord Masakata (Tatsuo Matsumura) only a short time before (Ichi was Masakata’s concubine). When Masakata’s heir dies of pneumonia, Ichi—who mothered the next-in-line—is summoned back to take her ‘rightful’ place alongside the Lord. However, Ichi and Yogoro have surprisingly fallen deeply in love, have a baby daughter Tomo, and are horrified at the thought of sending Ichi back to the castle. Invigorated by his son’s passion, Isaburo—earlier depicted as a beaten man in many ways—joins the determined couple in making a rebellious stand against the clan’s narrow-minded perspectives, eventually planning to go to Edo and report the clan’s treachery to Japan’s highest powers.
The opening of Samurai Rebellion presents a society with conflicted priorities—as Isaburo and his close friend Tatewaki (Tatsuya Nakadai) evaluate the quality of various swords for the Chamberlain, they find themselves mocked for never dueling (Isaburo and Tatewaki are considered the clan’s finest swordsmen) due to concern for their families. It’s evident immediately that Isaburo and the clan don’t see eye-to-eye on what the word ‘family’ represents: to the Chamberlain and Lord, the clan itself must take precedence, what its members should put first. Wives, sons, daughters, and personal friends are little more than secondary insignificances. Conversely, Isaburo—despite being “henpecked” by a verbally abrasive and cold wife in a loveless marriage—has no such illusions. He respects the clan, but puts his blood in the forefront, and doesn’t view the clan’s every word with reverence. Though Isaburo is submissive in many ways, we get the instantaneous sensation that something’s about to snap; that Isaburo has great quantities of frustration crying to escape, even if we’ve yet to learn what they stem from. As Samurai Rebellion glides along, we learn the extent of his unhappiness with his wife Suga (Michiko Otsuka), and how much he wants his sons to experience more joy than he. That his other son Bunzo (Tatsuyoshi Ehara) is a weak-willed, spineless jellyfish inspires him to support Yogoro and Ichi’s union until the very end. Indeed, one of Samurai Rebellion’s best sequence features Bunzo as the extended family representative, sent as a messenger to plead for Isaburo and Yogoro’s acquiescence, and unable to say a single word other than “father!” whenever he opens his mouth, as Isaburo calmly verbally undresses him, making it crystal clear that he will not back down from what’s right.
As Samurai Rebellion takes place during a serene time in the countryside, Kobayashi portrays unprovoked feudalistic tendencies: that is, customs and rigid hierarchical structures that aren’t stoked by the fires of battle. Indeed, much of Samurai Rebellion’s story can be viewed as a precursor to war—the selfishness, stubbornness, and frosty relations smack of what ultimately leads to senseless fighting in the first place. Suga’s chilly refusal to accept Ichi into the Sasahara family despite unmistakable, continuous evidence of her beautiful soul; the court’s kamikaze orders without regard to the humanity of others; the family’s refusal to stand by their kin in the face of adversity; all are uncomfortable traits of war-mongering tyrants who like to dub themselves ‘pioneers.’ Kobayashi suggests that even in times of overall tranquility, peace is only a surface reality—there’s always infighting and power-hungry dictators infecting societies that would be otherwise living in harmony.
Kobayashi utilizes selective tight framing to accentuate the sweat and tension that pervade most of the participants, but never overuses the close-ups; the fluid black-and-white photography is perfect for the simple-yet resonant world that Samurai Rebellion presents. Mifune turns in one his most nuanced performances: during his emotional outbursts—of which there are several, including a showdown with Masakata’s right-hand man and —he emotionally spits out his lines with the same energetic furor as in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and Yojimbo, or Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy. However, when he’s quietly lamenting his empty life, appraising his family, or taking stock of the clan’s most recent disloyalty, his face alternately hardens and softens, his voice fills with wistfulness. He’s a truly remarkable actor. The rest of the cast is uniformly outstanding as complements, from Katô as the distraught and fiercely noble Yogoro, to Yokô as the forlorn-but-faithful Ichi, to Otsuka as the unrelentingly aloof Suga.
When Isaburo and Tatewaki finally draw swords against each other, it’s for entirely selfless reasons: there’s no crowd to admire their talents, merely their nobility and beliefs in their societal positions and a refusal to conform. If Tatewaki isn’t quite as self-sacrificing as Isaburo throughout—he does, at one point, offer to kill Isaburo in exchange for a major promotion, which he’s refused; it’s unclear if he knew he would be rebuffed, and requested it to avoid having to contest Isaburo, which appears likely—his reasons for blocking the gate and finally fighting Isaburo, as well as for declining the Lord’s initial request to duel, speak for themselves, and inject a much-needed dose of faithfulness into an increasingly somber tale. However: Samurai Rebellion doesn’t end on a happy note—though there’s some reason for optimism—but it’s also not unrelentingly bleak and hopeless. As Isaburo notes, Ichi and Yogoro’s ardor is a superior example of love’s richest powers, and the energy and ideals that it can stir up within. And after you finish absorbing the masterpiece Samurai Rebellion, you just might feel inspired yourself.