Criterion: Samurai Rebellion (****1/2): Receive the wife, free the wife

Samurai Rebellion (1967) | The Criterion Collection
Samurai Rebellion – 1967

Director Masaki Kobayashi
Screenplay Shinobu Hashimoto based on Hairyozuma shimatsu by Yasuhiko Takiguchi
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Yoko Tsukasa, Go Kato, Tatsuya Nakadai, Takamaru Sasaki, Shigeru Koyama, Michiko Ôtsuka

What is the measure of a man? The ability to help others live their best lives would be high on the list for Isaburo Sasahara (Mifune), as supreme Samurai and clansman of the Aizu clan. After 20 years of a loveless arranged marriage to his aggressive wife (Ôtsuka), he stumbles into a relationship that gives him hope.

The relationship is that of his son, Yogoro (Kato) and new daughter in law, Ichi (Tsukasa). The relationship is one that he initially resisted, after having it forced upon him by the leader of his daimyo. When his son agrees to the bond, it is scandalous to his mother Suga, but is a blessing to Isaburo.

Two years later, word comes down that the Ichi, now a mother of a child with Yogoro, is being recalled to the lord. This time, father and son unite behind Ichi, allowing her to assert personhood for a brief, shining moment.

Being that this is a film about the 1720’s made in 1967, the presentation of the rights of a woman is, at best, in flux compared to what one would perceive today. It would feel like a mere plot point in the hands of lesser talent.

Samurai Rebellion is one of the bigger post-Kurosawa films for Toshiro Mifune. Still, it is not too far from the talent that Kurosawa had cultivated in the Japanese film scene. Its author, Hashimoto, helped to write many of the duo’s biggest films, including Rashomon, Throne of Blood and Seven Samurai. His best friend / main nemesis is none other than Tatsuya Nakadai, who contested Mifune in several films.

Director Kobayashi is the real find here. His skill at presenting all points of view is remarkable for what could amount to a formula film in future decades. There have been many such stories of the talented little guy going up against the odds and a bunch of bad guys better armed and willing to ruin lives.

The difference here is the breadth of the acting. There are several excellent performances. The two primary women in the film, Tsukasa and Ôtsuka, provide excellent opposing views of a woman’s place. As a person more interested in family positioning, Ôtsuka’s Suga is ruthless and rude. She cares little for the feelings of anyone in her family, least of all her young daughter in law.

Ichi, who goes from a fiance, to a mistress, then to a wife of three different men, blooms like a flower in the care of her Yogoro, with the support of Isaburo. The way she faces her challenges is inspiring for the time. Not a lot of films would venture this far into the heart of a woman.

As the new patriarch, Yogoro is staring at oblivion. It is a no win situation, but he presses forward out of a true selfless love. This performance is a thankless one, but it is moving nonetheless.

The real movement of the story is for Mifune’s Isaburo, of course. He grows from loyal soldier of the clan, to someone who is encountering life for the first time. The veteran actor is allowed room to grow in ways not often seen outside of his work with Kurosawa, and he takes advantage of the opportunity. We see him as passive, then retired, then as a support for his son, until fate requires him to step forward and unleash the inner ronin. It’s a great performance, but he has help.

Nakadai, as Tatewaki, is a lifelong friend. He’s the only one in the province that stands a chance of beating Isaburo in a sword contest. The response he gives when the daimyo attempts to press him into service amounts to more development than I recall seeing in previous films. The affect of their friendship is felt as the inevitable clash occurs. The expansion of a bit part makes sense: he worked with Kobayashi more often than with Kurosawa.

In all, there are a few, but very few, moments that don’t work for this film. The still shots during one of the flashbacks is just odd, for one. The unrelenting lack of reason by the entire daimyo and Isaburo’s married family seem somewhat forced. That said, this film has way more going for it than against.

For those worried that Mifune’s film quality might recede without his great collaborator, this is exhibit D (The Samurai Trilogy being A, B and C) that his instincts were good.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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