Tag Archives: samurai movies

Kobayashi’s “Samurai Rebellion” (1967)


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




The Ultimate Kurosawa Anti-Epic: “Ran” (1985)


For me the greatest film director ever was Kurosawa Akira (1910-98). After a series of epoch-making films during the 1950s (including, Rashomôn, Seven Samurai, Ikiru), Kurosawa and actor Mifune Toshirô parted after the long-extended (two years) shooting of “Red Beard” and Kurosawa had difficulties getting movies financed, especially after the commercial (and artistic) failing of “Dodesukaden” (1970) bankrupted the sort of “United Artists” production company he and  Ichikawa Kon had set up.

It took five years and going to Siberia to get financing (Soviet) for another movie, the gorgeous “Dersu Usala,” another five years after that and help from some of Kurosawa’s (then young and newly successful) American admirers (Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas) to put together financing of “Kagemusha” (The Shadow Warrior, 1980) with  Nakadai Tatsuya (born in 1930) as Lord Takeda Shingen and as the thief who was recruited to play his double and was engulfed by the role. The scene in which he must sit still atop a hill to inspire the clan’s troops makes me gulp and shudder even in memory. The battle scenes surpass even Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky.” The compositions and cinematography are ravishing.

The costumes and visual compositions and epic battle scenes in “Ran” (Chaos, 1985) match those of “Kagemusha.” King Lear is widely considered the Mount Everest of roles for an actor and Nakadai Tatsuya rose to the challenge. This is the ultimate story about aging and making bad decisions that cannot be reversed

At the start of the film, the 70-year-old Japanese warlord Lear, Hidetora Ichimonji (Nakadai), who has a lot of blood on his hands over the years fo consolidating power, is concluding a successful hunt for wild boars. He has a terrifying dream while taking a nap and resolves to put his earthly affairs in order. He gives each of his three sons one of the castles he controls.

His youngest son, Saburo (Daisuke Ryû playing the Cordelia of this version), attempts to convince him that dividing his realm is a bad idea. The son who is concerned about his father infuriates the father and is banished.

Controlling castles and realms of their own, the sons (egged on by Lady Macbeth-like wives [Kurosawa had already done his version of “Macbeth” in 1957’s “Throne of Blood”) make retirement less than quiet and comfortable for Hidetora. Turmoil grows into fratricidal civil war. There is an unforgettable scene in which Nakadai (exceptionally tall for Japanese especially of his vintage) slowly emerges from a burning castle and down a long flight of stone steps.

The sequence is stunningly dramatic, and I learned from bonus feature interview recollections from Nakadai that he was all alone inside the burning building and there was no possibility of a retake if he stumbled on the way down.


Kurosawa carried over from Shakespeare the structure of a ruler too soon old and way too late gaining understanding. Cordelia/Saturo dies and only after dying is recognized as the filial child, while Hidetora/Lear wanders disconsolate on the cold plain.

There is a fool in both, and Kurosawa turns the blade an extra twist, as well as expanding the part (Kyoami, played by Pîtâ, is the least stylized character in the film: that is, he has a personality rather than just playing a role).


In “Ran,” Kurosawa offers less catharsis than Shakespeare’s “Lear,” not being interested in providing any straw of consolation for audiences to clutch.) Kurosawa also provided a (bloody) backstory for the king/lord splitting his realm and retiring.

The movie has a lot of action and a lot of blood. What makes it the greatest film of the 1980s and one of the greatest ever are the astonishingly wide-ranging (in emotion) portrayal by Nakadai (the star of some other searing dramas including “The Human Condition,” “Seppuku,” “Kill!”), and the stunning, expressionist visual composition (includingWada Emi’s Oscar-winning costume design) and color cinematography (Nakai, Saitô, Ueda). Both “Kagemusha” and “Ran!” show the devastation of pride and empire — to music inspired by Mahler’s First Symphony, “The Titan.” (Kurosawa pressed that model on Takemitsu Toru, who had wanted to use human voices).

Kurosawa looked down on human folly as if from heaven throughout his two great, culminating 1980s masterpieces, and the last scenes in both movies are shot from above. Kurosawa made some more, smaller movies, but he thought “Ran” would be his final statement and it resounds as the self-conscious pinnacle of a great artist’s artistry and ambition.

The cataclysm is filmed in the most vivid colors. “Ran” is the ultimate Kurosawa film. After that he doodled—interesting doodles, but there is nowhere to go after Lear.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

“Vendetta of Samurai” (1952) written but not directed by Kurosawa

“Vendetta of Samurai” (Mataemon Araki: Ketto kagiya no tsuji, 1952, written by Kurosawa for Mazuo Mori) features four of the (1954) “Seven Samurai” (Shimura Takashi, Mifune Toshiro, Kato Daisuke , and Chiaki Minoru), plus the rubber-faced old farmer Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari) as a teahouse owner. After illustrating the improbable legend of Mataemon (Mifune) slaughtering 36 samurai in the Igagoe Vendetta of 1634, there is a revisionist narration and then a slow middle of the movie as Mataemon plans the ambush in which his young brother-in-law Kazuma (Katayama Akihiko [Mother]) will avenge the murder of Kazuma’s brother by Matagoro (Chiaki). This involves Matemon going against his best friend, Jinza(Shimura), and a fearsome spear fighter Hanbei. Mifune is very restrained. The middle of the movie is IMHO becalmed. Though I appreciate the contrast of legend and greater realism, I miss the cinematic dynamism of Kurosawa’s direction.

Mataemon remains implacable and imperturbable, but Kazuma trembles and Mataemon has to order him to finish the kill. The other two samurai in the revenge party also show fear, as does Matagoro. Also, in their duels to the death both Mataemon and Kazuma have the advantage of having helmets. Jinzai removed his just before crossing the river into town, and Matagoro had been wearing only a straw hat.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

(This should have been included with my posting on two other Kurosawa scripts directed by others at https://japaneseculturereflectionsblog.wordpress.com/2016/02/04/two-late-1940s-movies-kurosawa-wrote-and-others-directed/.)

My favorite Kurosawa film: Sanjuro (1962)


I consider Kurosawa Akira (1910-1998) responsible for more cinematic masterpieces than anyone else. He remains best known for historical films from the 1950s such as “The Seven Samurai,” “Rashomon,” “Throne of Blood,” and for the color-film masterpieces “Kagemusha” (1980) and “Ran” (1985) that were the culmination of this line of work. There is some dark comedy in “Kagemusha” and in his adaptation of “King Lear” (Ran), the Fool plays a part, but those are epics of annihilation.

Kurosawa’s black humor samurai movies of the early 1960s also have high corpse counts, but do not leave the viewer with the taste of ashes that “Kagemusha” and “Ran” do. Both “Yojimbo” (1961) and “Tsubaki Sanjuro” (1962) star the great Mifune Toshirô (1920-1997) as a very savvy ronin. A ronin is a masterless (that is, unemployed) samurai. (And samurais were the hereditary warrior class in Japan, serving nobles and looking down on merchants, however wealthy they might become.) Mifune’s characters in both movies are masterful, but masterless. They choose which side to help —and/or offer to help—in local conflicts. (In “Yojimbo,” it is more a “pox on both sides” stance.)

At the start of “Sanjuro,” Kurosawa threw the viewer into a secret meeting of nine earnest, youngish, and idealist samurai. They are outraged at corruption and it soon becomes obvious, they have sought the aid of the most corrupt of the local officials, the superintendent, to rectify the situation. He asked them to assemble so that he could talk to them. In contrast to these naive youngsters with their shaved foreheads, an older, bearded samurai with an unshaved forehead appears seemingly out of nowhere. The name he gives (as also in “Yojimbo”) is “Sanjuro,” which means “30.” In both, he adds “going on 40.” (It has long puzzled me that the samurais Mifune played never had shaved foreheads…) Although a stranger to the parts, this man has a much better understanding of the situation, and has noticed that the building is surrounded.

Sanjuro begins the attempt to teach the honorable young samurai not to be fooled by appearances. They are abashed to realize that they were influenced in part by the ugliness of the chamberlain to assume that he was the corrupt one, not the more conventionally handsome superintendent. Soon, they find out that the superintendent has kidnapped the chamberlain. Sanjuro and the nine mental dwarfs manage to rescue the chamberlain’s wife and daughter. They are even more oblivious to dangers and unpleasant realities than the young samurais. The wife almost fails to escape because she is too polite to use Sanjuro’s back as a stepping stone to get over the wall. Later (after the two women rest in a position that makes my muscles ache even to look at!), the wife tells Sanjuro that swords should be kept in scabbards and that he should endeavor to minimize violence and use his sword only as a last resort. “Killing people is a bad habit,” she tells him.

He seeks to do this, but the young samurai’s actions force him to kill many people. Having been likened to a “naked sword,” the need to slay people to protect those he has undertaken to protect irritates Sanjuro. He is a very grumpy leader who has taken on the difficult task of saving the young samurais from their foolishness and the women from their total unworldliness.

It is polite questioning form the chamberlain’s wife that leads to the grizzled samurai taking “Tsubaki” as a name, as he looks out into the garden at abundantly blooming camellias (tsubaki in Japanese). The camellias play a major part in the plot, and a stream full of them is the image I most remembered from earlier viewings of the movie.

The plot is fairly complicated and I would not want to reveal Sanjuro’s tactics to those who have yet to enjoy the movie. I do, however, want to mention his one worthy opponent, the captain of the samurais of the superintendent’s house. In “Yojimbo,” Nakadai Tatsua played a swaggering gunslinger among the swordsman, a 1950s “hood” in the midst of a swordplay anti-epic. In “Sanjuro” Nakadai (with a shaved forehead, though, like Mifune, he usually managed to avoid this in playing samurai roles) is serving the villains, but does not have the individualist swagger of his “Yojimbo” role. In another adaptation of the same novel by Yamamoto (Shugoto who also wrote the novel on which Kurosawa’s 1965 “Red Beard” was based), “Kiru” (“Kill!”) Nakadai plays the Mifune part and is more explicit in criticizing loyalty to masters not worthy of respect than Mifune is in “Sanjuro.” In “Sanjuro” the problem is more that the young samurai are naive and guileless than that a code of honor leads to blindly taking orders from dishonorable elders (parallels to the imperial disasters of the Great Pacific War were surely not accidental…)

Nakadai is intense (as usual). Mifune did irritability about as well as anyone ever has. As in “Samurai Rebellion,” Mifune’s character does not want the final confrontation with Nakadai (yes, they were the worthy opponents again in that). But try as he mightily does to limit bloodletting in “Sanjuro,” he cannot, and fight again he must. (BTW, in Kurosawa’s next film, the modern-day “High and Low,” Mifune and Nakadai were finally on the same side, and the extreme acting out was assigned to neither of them.)

Although “Sanjuro” was made quickly, following the success of “Yojimbo” and presented as a sort of a sequel, Kurosawa felt that the two films were very different. He said that Japanese audiences also considered them very different. (I hope that I have already contrasted Mifune’s characters trying to limit violence and save one faction in “Sanjuro” with his fomenting attacks so that both sides kill each other off in “Yojimbo.”) Kurosawa told Donald Richie (who did so much to introduce Japanese cinema in the Anglophone world) that “the youngsters loved ‘Yojimbo,’ but it was the adults who liked ‘Sanjuro.’ I think that they liked it because it is the funnier and really the more attractive of the two.” Not to mention, that the young appear very foolish in “Sanjuro” (though many of the elders in “Sanjuro” are nearly as easily fooled and considerably greedier than the youngsters thrashing about).

That things are not what they seem—and that people’s characters in particular are not—is a leitmotif in Kurosawa’s films, most famously in the multiple perspectives of “Rashomon,” and on through the moving forest (Burnham Woods) of his adaptation of “Macbeth” in “Throne of Blood,” though the intern in “High and Low,” and on to Nakadai’s thief impersonating a great warrior in “Kagemusha” and misjudging his sons (Lear’s daughters reconfigured) in “Ran.”

Seeing “Kill!” prompted me want to watch “Sanjuro” again, though “Sanjuro” has given me great pleasure the four or five times I have watched it. It is my favorite Kurosawa film, though I would not contend that it is the best (that would be “Ran” or “Seven Samurai”).

The Criterion DVD provides a good print of the film, with many marvelous widescreen compositions. Like the  Criterion set of four samurai films (including “Kill!”), the earlier set of four Kurosawa samurai films is short on extras. There is nothing but a trailer for “Sanjuro” on the “Sanjuro” disc (though an interesting trailer it is, with footage of Kurosawa rehearsing Mifune and a funny line that is not included in the movie). I’d have liked some comments from Donald Richie and an interview of Tatsuya Nakadai, both of whom were still active (Nakadai still is, though Richie has died since the DVD was issued)  and have provided insights in the documentary “Kurosawa” and in bonus features on other discs. The only extra is a brief (2.5 page) essay by Michael Sragow that suggests “Sanjuro” is a sort of prequel to “Yojimbo” in that the feudal order was still functioning in “Sanjuro” (if none too well and with Sanjuro a post-feudal realist) and stressing that “Sanjuro” (and other Kurosawa films) are visually composed in ways that are disastrously jettisoned by any pan-and-scan print, since he filled the screen from one side to the other.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

“The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail”

“Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi” (The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail), was the third movie Kurosawa Akira directed — in 1945 as Japan was in the final stages of losing the Pacific War. I don’t know that the project was initiated by someone or someones thinking about losing and surviving by craftiness and quick thinking, since surrender was still unthinkable in Japan before the atomic bobs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The story dates from the twelfth century and, as “”Kanjincho,” has long been a popular kabuki drama, and, insofar as Nô dramas can be said to be “popular,” a popular Nô one, too, as “Ataka.”

Slanders against Prince Yoshitsune (Shubo Nishina, sometimes billed as Iwai Hanshiro) have convinced his brother, the new shogun Yoritomo, that Yoshitsune has plotted his overthrow, so Yoshitsune, accompanied by six loyal vassal warriors (samurai) is fleeing north (to the Fujiwara capital of Hiraizumi, if anyone cares). This is explained by titles before anything is shown and again by the monkey-like porter (comedian Enomoto Kenichi), who suddenly realizes that the group he has been telling his customers about is the group he is working for. This comic Everyman is Kurosawa’s addition. The other characters are preoccupied with the code of honor (bushido — the way of the warrior).

The six warriors believe they could overpower the garrison guarding the passage, but the savvy leader, Benkei (Ôkôchi Denjirô, who starred in the two “Sugata Sanshiro” movies and as the dissident professor in “No Regrets for Our Youth”) prefers finesse that will not provoke a military expedition in pursuit of them. Benkei manages to sustain the subterfuge that the warriors are monks raising money to rebuild a temple. The prince is disguised as a second porter, so that the group is six instead of seven, plus two porters.

The lord in charge, Togashi (Fujita Susumu, Human Condition II, High and Low, Yojimbo) is suspicious about these very muscular priests, but Benkei improvises brilliantly, including reading the prospectus for raising funds for the reconstruction from a blank scroll. Is Togashi fooled? Fujita looks like he is aware of who the group is but appreciates Benkei’s poise andloyalty and thourhgtul provision of plausible deniability, including a major act of lese majeste. And/or his implicit belief that the prince is not guilty of treason…

The movie ends with a major drinking party in which the porter dances. In the final scene, he wakes up to find himself alone and amply rewarded for his help (even though at several points his alarm has to have been noticed by Togashi).

I am surprised to learn that any of the movie was shot on location; only the border encampment was shot in a studio. Camera movement and some trekking through the forest keep a quite talky movie from feeling static, and the short film (59 minutes) prefigures later, grander Kurosawa historical movies. The lowly porter, in particular, prefigures the thief impersonating the warlord in “Kagemusha,” and the savvy Benkei prefigures the leader of the “Seven Samurai” (that was played by Shimura Takashi, who is already on hand as one of the six warriors treading on the tiger’s tale, and appeared in many Kurosawa from the first (Sagata Sanshiro) movies right up to “Kagemusha,” starring most transcendentally in “Ikiru”). Smuggling a disguised royal is also central to “The Hidden Fortress” (in which Fujita and Shimura both played generals). And the porter looks and moves somewhat like the scavenger protogonist of “Dodesukaden,” the one Kurosawa film that I actively dislike.

What I had not anticipated is the musical comedy aspects in a drama about loyalty, but there are three songs within the 59 minutes of running time. One, metaphorically celebrating having made a difficult escape, “stepping on a tiger’s tail and escaping from a poisonous snake,” gave the movie its title and derives directly from the kabuki “Kanjincho.”

BTW, the new, American rulers of Japan, banned the movie until 1952 (after the international success of “Rashômon” and the restoration of Japanese sovereignty) for its feudal bushido elements, undercut as they are by the hammy porter being made something of a hero and arguably the protagonist of the movie (though I consider Togashi the hero and protagonist). And Kurosawa had wanted to make a movie about later chaos, the climactic battle that he finally portrayed in “Kagemusha,” but horses were unavailable.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray