November 21, 2008 -- ôSamurai Rebellionö (J˘i-uchi: Hairy˘ tsuma shimatsu) one of the classics of Japanese Samurai films (released in 1967), has a title that seems to imply battles on an epic scale, like ôThe Last Samurai,ö but it is really a small scale family drama. If you are waiting for swordplay, you'll have a long wait, more than an hour and a half, before that happens. Instead, what you will see for most of the film is an understated love story and a tragedy about the grave injustices of a feudal society. This is reflected in the film's original Japanese title, literally, ôRebellion: Receive the Wife.ö
The story is set in feudal Japan in the 1700s. Guns have appeared on the scene, but the Samurai sword is still the weapon of preference. Isaburo Sasahara (played by the great Toshir˘ Mifune) is a swordsman without equal, but is only a minor functionary of his feudal lord with a small fiefdom. Knowing that martial arts is his only skill, Isaburo has led a quiet, unhappy life, henpecked by his shrewish wife, Kiku (Etsuko Ichihara). One day the feudal lord orders Isaburo to arrange for his son, Yogoro (Takeshi Kat˘) to marry the lord's former mistress, Ichi (Y˘ko Tsukasa). Kiku and Isaburo object to the marriage. Isaburo risks his family's fortunes by resisting the order. He doesn't want his son having to endure a loveless marriage like he has. At the last moment, Yogoro saves the family from disgrace by agreeing to marry Ichi. Against all expectations, Ichi and Yogoro fall in love and have a happy marriage.
After two years, Ichi bears a child, a girl. Isaburo seems as happy with the marriage as his son. The love between Yogoro and Ichi seems to have given him new life. Then the feudal lord orders that Yogoro give up Ichi and send her back to the castle. It seems that Ichi's first child, a son, born when she was a mistress to the feudal lord, has become the heir apparent and it wouldn't be seemly for the mother of the new feudal lord to be married to a lowly vassal. Both Isaburo and Yogoro resist the order, while the rest of the family wants Ichi to return to the castle. They are afraid the family will be destroyed if Yogoro, Ichi and Isaburo continue to resist the order.
Most of the rest of the movie is taken up with intense political maneuvering between the emperor, his underlings and the head of the Sasahara clan. All of these maneuverings are very formal and very polite. The pressure builds on Ichi, Yogoro and Isaburo to give in to the feudal lord. This is a very carefully constructed psychological drama. Ichi, Yogoro and Isaburo all have very good reasons to defy the social order. They have all been pushed too far. The demands upon them are inhumane. They would rather die than accept injustice. It is pretty obvious early on that this conflict is not going to have a happy ending. It is obvious that it will end in violence, but the violence is a long time coming. I kept wondering why they didn't just get on with it.
The film gives the viewer a good look at the strict social customs and rigid political system of Japan in this historical period. It achieves high drama in this pressure-cooker environment where no emotional relief valves exist, until Isaburo can unleash his rage in a blaze of violence. The film begins and ends with Isaburo joined by his best friend, Tatewaki Asano (Tatsuya Nakadai) under wildly different circumstances. It is beautifully photographed in widescreen Tohoscope (aspect ratio 2.35 : 1) by Kazuo Yamada (ôRanö). It is directed by Masaki Kobayashi, one of Japan's master directors. This film rates a C+.
I Watched this film on a Criterion Collection disk. Some film damage was apparent. Since Criterion has a reputation for good restorations, I assume the source material was at fault in this case. Perhaps a good print could not be found. The extras on the disk include a brief interview with the director.
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