Samurai Rebellion (1967)

Class: Staff
Author: Miles Imhoff
Score: (4.5/5)
January 12, 2006 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

I wander through Media Play a few days ago and what do I find...? An amazing gem in the Rebel Samurai box set. Samurai Rebellion, a late 60's epic focusing on a samurai who defies his lord's unreasonable demands is a brilliant and often sad portrayal of the struggle against overwhelming oppression. A daring take on the samurai genre, Samurai Rebellion is packed with social commentary and presses on with gradually building and gripping intensity. On a more aesthetic level, the cinematography is dynamic and the choreography crisp. It is one of Toshiro Mifune's finer roles, and is unfortunately a rather obscure title. Nevertheless, those fortunate enough to discover this film are indeed in for a pleasant, if heartbreaking, surprise.

In the wake of a strange incident at the castle of the Aizu Clan, Lord Masakata Matsudaira sent his top mistress away in a fury. Ichi, the daughter of Hyoemon Shiomi, brutally attacked the lord's new mistress and the lord himself. She was therefore rejected from the castle and forced to marry the son of a vassal, young Yogoro Sasaharo. His father Isaburo, personally understanding the grave mistake of marriage without love, tactfully pled with his superiors to forego the arrangement. Ultimately, Yogoro relented to the demands, and he and Ichi were married. Her quiet demeanor and helpful nature puzzled the Sasahara's, who were under the impression that this woman would be a loose cannon. She revealed that she had attacked the lord for a specific purpose, for she had never wished to be the lord's mistress in the first place. Her acceptance of the all-but-mandatory arrangement was forged in the mindset that she could prevent others from this same misfortune. After the birth of their son, she witnessed the arrival of the lord's new mistress, who seemed to relish in her new position without a hint of humility. Filled with disdain, Ichi went mad with rage. In her recount of what happened, Yogoro and Isaburo warmed up to Ichi's character, and for two years, the newly wed couple gradually forged a loving relationship and gave birth to their daughter Tomi.

Soon, trouble befell the lord of the Aizu Clan, as his heir passed on. The son he had borne with his former mistress still remained however, and that child would have to become the new heir to the fiefdom. Ichi would soon be forced to return to the castle, as was deemed appropriate by the lord. A fissure shook the Sasahara home, as it soon became clear that Isaburo's wife Suga and Yogoro's brother Bunzo wished to immediately comply with the now-reversed demands of their lord. Isaburo, whose personal relationship with his own nagging wife was strained and loveless from day one, did not desire the loss of the love which Yogoro and Ichi shared. Despite Isaburo and Yogoro's stunning objection, Suga and Bunzo led Ichi into a trap set by the chamberlain and steward in order to return the woman to the castle. Yogoro's resolve began to waiver, but Isaburo, encouraged by his colleague Tatewaki Asano, was convinced to stay the course. He would rebel, and with his loyal son, he would demand Ichi's return... even in the face of the deadly loyalty of the Aizu Clan superiors.

When you begin to watch the film, it is a little like seeing a jumbled puzzle. You don't warm up to anyone right away, and the events all seem relatively parallel. It soon becomes clear as time goes on that everything has a purpose and gradually converges on the climax. Isaburo's strained relationship plays a part in his avid defense of his son's marriage over his loyalties to the clan. Takewaki's alliance with Isaburo leads to his assistance in the events that transpire, even if he ultimately hinders the mission of his old friend. Ichi's personal strength and her loving empathy are the driving force behind her decisions, both of acceptance and defiance when it benefits those she loves or those with whom she empathizes. It all ties up neatly to the point of the first major battle. Then, tragedy strikes. The rebellion crumbles as Ichi, Yogoro, and Isaburo ultimately die in their defiance, and sadly, only the steward pays the price for the evil of the film's villains. The only key that revealed their tragic victory over the oppression of their lord was Tomi, who represented the love that led to the defiance. And, in a way, victory was Ichi and Yogoro's... for they died together, while the lord was left without his selfish request granted.

Toshiro Mifune does a really fantastic job with Isaburo (and in this author's opinion, is his best role that I've yet seen). He comes across as very likeable, showing a tender nature, an air of dissent, and a strong will for justice. He manages a blend in the demeanor of several previous roles: Musashi Miyamoto, Sanjuro, and Red Beard. However, he shows something new, specifically when he's burying his son and daughter-in-law. He shows a new character trait, a very human grief that I will shamelessly admit made me cry. Yoko Tsukasa expertly accentuated her very tragic role with an emotional sadness that felt almost too real. Takeshi Kato's performance was also excellent; his range of emotions and hesitant movements lending to the uncertainty of his character. Michiko Otsuka, although only present for the first half of the movie, gave her character the air of contempt, apathy, and unlovingness that foiled Mifune's character so greatly and provided insight into his actions. Tatsuyoshi Ehara, who plays her son, manages to act with such a cowardly air, perfect for his weasely role as the duplicitous brother. Shigeru Koyama, with his sly movements and sinister gaze, became a classic villain in the story (and the only major antagonist who met his demise in battle with Mifune's character). Tatsuo Matsumura and Masao Mishima, although providing their characters a less openly evil demeanor, still forged a contemptible presence. Finally, there is Tatsuya Nakadai, the wild-eyed ally/hindrance of Mifune's character. His cold gaze is unnerving right from the get-go, and despite the fact that one immediately considers him a "good-guy", Nakadai expertly provides a lingering doubt that will ultimately come to fruition at the climax.

To comment on the more visually-based features of the film, and the fight choreography in particular, I must say I'm personally very impressed. The smooth style through which Toshiro Mifune's character took care of his opponents really is satisfying for the modern fan of swordplay who can become easily bored by the lackluster style that accompanies some similar films from this era. The final battle in particular is very intriguing. Mifune's character, despite all odds and several gunshot wounds, presses on and slices through his opponents, aided by his resolve to right injustice. The camera work used to capture the action and drama alike was, to put it simply: professional. The still work, combined with the zoom and pan was, with few exceptions, exceptionally well done, and the dynamic was ahead of its time. All the elements of the visual atmosphere just blended together to create an aesthetically appropriate vessel for the unfolding plot.

Finally, music should be mentioned, even though there isn't much to cover in this area. Unfortunately, it may be one of the film's few flaws, as the lack of discernable themes can make some scenes a test of the viewer's patience. However, the solemn nature of this film and the tragic ending don't merit a lavish score, and the minimalist, traditional approach seems to compliment the film nicely. To sum up what little music there is, it is basically either within the film, as in, the characters are producing it (i.e. the wedding ceremony); or, it is part of the thin soundtrack, the styles of which capture the atmosphere of the time period represented, as opposed to some contemporary efforts to vie for a more modern soundtrack. Whether it works with the film is really up to the viewer to decide, although personally, I could have done with a little bit of a modern touch to alleviate the heavy mood.

Sadly, Samurai Rebellion is the kind of movie that doesn't receive the exposure it should. Often it is word-of-mouth that lends to wider audiences for films of this nature, especially nowadays. It appears as though there is a small audience that does comprehend the excellence of this particular piece of cinema, but it is unfortunate that the few there are can't get the message out to other fans. Samurai Rebellion really should be mentioned right up their with Kurosawa's greats. Fortunately, for those who have discovered what this movie has to offer, they know full well what others are missing. Samurai Rebellion is a paradigm of social commentary in the samurai genre, a brilliant epic with a message about love, dissent, and justice. Take some time to search for it, and you'll surely be pleased.