I watched Samurai Rebellion last night thinking I was treating myself to an escapist swordplay film heavy on slashing and blood. Turns out I was delightfully wrong. Instead, Samurai Rebellion turned out to be an incredibly deep family drama centered around a samurai family in the Edo period, during which separate feudal societies were subject to the daimyo (regional leaders). In fact, the only fighting and blood is seen within the last 20-30 minutes of the film in a fantastic climax.
The pacing is slow and centered on domestic scenes regarding the marriage in the Sasahara clan. The main plot line is that the daimyo rejects his former mistress, Ichi, after she has slapped him and dragged his new mistress by the hair. The Sasahara family is ordered to take her in and be married to the son, Yogoro, Isaburo's (Toshiro Mifune) son. Since she is tainted with the stigma of being abandoned after bearing a child, she is initially rejected by Isaburo and his wife, only to be accepted by Yogoro. Eventually we learn that she actually has a heart of gold and she leads a happy life with the Sasaharas and even bears a child. Later, after the daimyo's main heir has died she is ordered to return to the daimyo's side as the heir's mother, which is a terrible, inhumane order. Yogoro and Isaburo reject the daimyo's orders and the story picks up intensely from there.
I have seen Kobayashi's Harakiri, which also impressed me to no end. I was reminded of that film as I was watching Samurai Rebellion because the theme of rejecting established order is prevalent and so is the attention away from sword fighting and towards dialogue. This makes sense since the same writer, Shinobu Hashimoto, wrote both films. However, there is a difference in the two. This is in the inclusion of the woman character, Ichi, who ends up being the most honorable, courageous character in the film, unusual for the typically manly chanbara (samurai film). The situation completely revolves around her, and the injustice and cruelty of situations she is put in is almost unbearable at times. It is no wonder that the original Japanese title translates more closely to Rebellion: Receive the Wife. The alteration to Samurai Rebellion is clearly geared towards attracting overseas audiences hoping to see swordplay.
Another element of the film that struck me was the mise-en-scene, particularly the composition of the shots. The geometric lines and shapes of the neat, ordered houses and castles add some great compositional symmetry and visual appeal. Not only that, but in certain scenes the very rigidness and confining nature of the structure can be felt in the film, addressing the thematic issue of the oppression of established order. When Isaburo and Yogoro strip their house of the tatami mats and walls they are visually rebelling against order. There is also a great scene in which the entire Sasahara clan visits with Ichi to advise her to obey the daimyo for the sake of their well-being and their family name, encircling her as they sit. When she refuses the family file out of the room one by one, leaving the symmetry of the circle disrupted, leaving only the nuclear Sasahara family, dissheveled and in disarray emotionally and visually. Donald Richie writes about these elements much more clearly in his essay for the Criterion release of the DVD.
What really attracts me to Samurai Rebellion and Harakiri, and thus to Kobayashi, is the totality of the story's message. "Everyone must live his own life," says Isaburo to his younger son as he prepares to fight to the death. It is a tragic beauty encapsulated by the willingness to die in the face of hopelessness in order to justify your own existence. This is a message more relatable to the feudal society, but surely can ring true in any situation of authority vs. individual. As the film comes close the end you know that it won't end happily - Kobayashi wouldn't stoop so low. It is a tragedy, but in it you find meaning. The heartbreak of it is that these are stories that wouldn't be recorded in the history books. Isaburo will die in the field and no officials will no of his story or the injustice he suffered.
I love this stuff.