Kobayashi’s “Jôi-uchi: Hairyô tsuma shimatsu” (Samurai Rebellion, 1967) is like “Kwaidan” in starting slowly and building to a searing climax, and in being enhanced by a fine musical score by Takemitsu Toru, but if it is a horror movie, the horror is capricious human tyranny, nothing ghostly. (It has a different cinematographer, but another great one, Yamada Kazuo, who shot “Miyamoto Musashi,” the third part of Hiroshi Inagaki’s samurai trilogy, and “Chushingura”/47 Ronin).
After an opening scene of the senior swordsmen testing a new sword, a scene that is fairly mystifying at the time, but in retrospect becomes very important, the first hour or so of “Samurai Rebellion,” looks like an Ozu film set in 1727. That is, it looks like a story of family adjustment in pretty tightly confined space (a traditional Japanese house rather than a modern apartment).
Matsudaira (Matsumura Tatsuo), the daimyô (feudal lord) who was the senior swordsmen from the first scene, sends an underling with what amounts to an order for Sasahara Isaburo (Mifune Toshirô) to marry his eldest son to a woman, Ichi (Tsukasa Yôko), discarded by the daimyo after she bore him a son. Not unreasonably, Isaburo wants to know what she did that she is being banished from the castle, but the emissary will not tell him. He and the wife (Ôtsuka Michiko) he loathes both oppose the marriage, but the son Yogoro (Katô Gô) agrees to do as the daimyo wishes for the good of the family.
The exiled/disgraced woman turns out to be a model wife, even placating her tyrannical mother-in-law. Yogoro comes to love the wife who was forced on him and she him. She tells him what happened to get her banished (in a flashback within a flashback) and vows to stop worrying about the son she left in the castle. Soon she bears a daughter, on whom Isaburo dotes.
Then, the heir apparent of the clan dies, leaving Ichi’s son as the only heir. It is not proper for the mother of the future daimyô to be married to a vassal, so she is recalled. The clan leaders demand that Yogoro petition the daimyô to take Ichi back. He refuses, backed by his father. This leads to some extremely tense deputations, clan meetings, household bickering, and getting Ichi out of the house by trickery. The formality of the meetings is very striking, but the resistance by Ichi, Yogoro, and Isaburo is unwavering.
The final negotiation in the courtyard of the Sasahara family is amazing (like the finale of “Harakiri”). I don’t think that it is giving much away to say that the long-delayed swordfight occurs. Actually, there are three major fights in the last half hour of the film. Isaburo slays a lot of the daimyô ‘s swordsmen (as Mifune did in a number of other samurai movies). The duel between Isaburo and the other master from the opening scene (Kobayashi’s frequent star, Nakadai Tatsuya, who also played in many Kurosawa films, some with Mifune, and after Kurosawa’s epically stupid break with Mifune, the leading roles in “Kagemusha” and “Ran”) finally comes.
The restraint of Mifune and Nakadai, their extreme reluctance to fight, are impressive. The visual composition of every scene is, also. As I already indicated, many are in confined indoor spaces, but the outdoor shots are every bit as carefully framed. A messenger’s headlong ride on an isolated road and the outpost guarded by Nakadai are particularly haunting (aided by the music of Takemitsu Toru).
The stylization of encounters in feudal Japan apparently bores some audiences, but I think it is fascinating as portrayed in the films of the great postwar Japanese film-makers. The leading characters in many of the films of Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ichikawa go through hells of various sorts, many of them perishing. “Samurai Rebellion” is not light entertainment. Everybody does not live happily ever after. Indeed, hardly any of the characters have any chance of doing so! The characters here are pushed beyond endurance and rise to heroism in resisting tyranny within rigid rules. Not the special effects but the characters are actions in “Samurai Rebellion” and are awe-inspiring.
This was the second Kobayashi film I ever saw (the first, which I have not rewatched was the much heralded (Including Oscar-nominated) 1964 trilogy of ghost stories “K[w]aidan”) and the last of his films available on Hulu or Criterion. (There were six more, including the 4-hour documentary on the Tokyo war crimes trial, before he died in 1996.) I think that “Samurai Rebellion” has the best Mifune performance not directed by Kurosawa.
©2016, Stephen O . Murray