Joi-uchi: Hairyozuma shimatsu
Maybe not every samurai movie is about how lousy samurai society actually was, but most of the good ones are. Rebellion is one of the best. As you'd expect, frankly, given the man who made it.
Directed by Masaki Kobayashi
Written by Shinobu Hashimoto (based on the novel Hairyozuma shimatsu by Yashuhiko Takaguchi)
With Tohsiro Mifune (Isaburo Sasahara), Yoko Tsukasa (Ichi Sasahara), Go Kato (Yogoro Sasahara), Michiko Otsuka (Suga Sasahara), Tatsuo Matsumura (Lord Masakata Matsudaira), Shigeru Koyama (Geki Takahashi), and Tatsuya Nakadai (Tatewaki Asano)
Spoiler alert: moderate
Very long time readers, of which there are approximately none (and if that's not true, then they're a rounding error), may recall that years ago, I began a retrospective of the great Masaki Kobayashi, whom I would probably name as my favorite Japanese director—to tweak the Kurosawa fanboys, if nothing else, which I surely oughtn't do, since I've only seen about half of Kurosawa's output, too. Well, that Kobayashi retrospective stalled just two installments in, for a number of reasons—not least my well-known shiftlessness—but also because Kobayashi's filmography, already only mostly captured by the Criterion Collection as far as its early phases go, becomes entirely inaccessible, at least in America, once it moves into the late 1960s. Despairing that I'd never complete the thing, I gave up. That's when Criterion decided to make it even harder to come back to it, in any fashion, by pulling their films from Hulu, thanks to all our media corporations (even media corporations run by limosine liberal art-farts, as Criterion presumably is) having decided that the best, most surefire way to take on the realities of the 21st century marketplace is to fragment their content across a whole blinding kaleidoscope of streaming services, apparently unaware that the reason Netflix and Hulu ever gained ground in the first place was because consumers viscerally hate fragmentation. In other words, then, Filmstruck can suck me. (It doesn't help that their app doesn't work on my TV.)
Nevertheless, I've recently come into a trove of Kobayashi films, so, over the next several months, we'll be looking at them whenever the mood takes me. Or, nothing being certain in this world, maybe we won't. Either way, let's no longer call it a retrospective, but a "selected works" instead. This gives us a certain freedom, too; and, counterintuitively, this time we're beginning at the "end" of things, mostly because I simply hadn't seen Kobayashi's glum, anti-authoritarian 1967 near-masterpiece, Samurai Rebellion, in some little while.
And Rebellion is, in some ways, a culmination of Kobayashi's ethos. Certainly, it carries that ethos forward in ways as direct as he ever put to the screen—which is saying something indeed, considering that Rebellion follows in the footsteps of Harakiri, Kobayashi's all-time masterpiece (and perhaps all Japanese cinema's, as well), Harakiri being the story of one man's tragic resistance to a system so invincible in its privileges that, frankly, you'd soon guess how that movie ends even if its title weren't "suicide."
Rebellion, then, is Kobayashi's second (or rather third, once we count the thematically-tangent Kwaidan) jidaigeki, literally "era drama," the "era," in practice, tending to mean "the Edo Period." And while not all jidaigeki are chanbara flicks, i.e., swordfight movies, most of Kobayashi's are. Indeed, it was a genre that Kobayashi, like Kurosawa, did his most famous and his finest work in—though I'll admit that I am no doubt biased toward movies about samurai swinging their swords through old-timey Japan, which (after all) do tend to be more inherently thrilling than the ballads of sad salarymen, while also being more emotionally and politically digestible than bitter tales of the Pacific War. Yet while Kobayashi surely did more than his part to define the chanbara film, it never did define him. He'd go on to mount only one more katana-and-kimonos piece, 1971's Inn of Evil; and this film, too, would star his trusty muse, Tatsuya Nakadai. It's worth mentioning that Rebellion represents another, littler, fannish kind of culmination on that actor's account, too, if you're into it (and I am): for it offers the final duel of Nakadai against his frequent screen archenemy, Rebellion's actual lead—ever the sword-wielding Harlem Globetrotter to Nakadai's blood-gushing Washington General—the legendary Toshiro Mifune.
So go on, and guess who wins.
Mifune is Isaburo Sasahara, a samurai middle-manager who's married up within the nobility, to Suga, a distant and resentful wife to him, and an overbearing mother to each of his two sons. Nakadai, meanwhile, is Tatewaki Asano, a co-worker of sorts to Isaburo—Isaburo being in charge of their clan's armory, Tatewaki, its border gates—but Tatewaki is also Isaburo's dearest friend, such that Isaburo feels comfortable confiding in him the sensation of creeping anxiety he feels over Suga's continual sabotage of all his eldest son Yogoro's marriage prospects. But, as if by fate, Isaburo won't have to worry about his child's ongoing virginity for long. Word arrives from their lord that he has grown displeased with the outre behavior of one of his concubines, a certain Lady Ichi; but, as she has borne him a son and possible heir, he cannot simply dispense with her altogether. And thus has Yogoro been selected to take Ichi off his hands as a wife, and nobody in the Sasahara family is very pleased by this at all—except, ironically enough, the only body it actually directly affects, poor Yogoro himself, who, at least in the context of an austere Edo Period jidaigeki made in 1967, could indeed be fairly described as "gagging for it."
Isaburo is subtly astonished, however, when Ichi turns out to be the very model of a wife, loved greatly by Yogoro, who is loved by her in return; Isaburo is even made to understand that her furious behavior at the daimyo's court, while not necessarily praiseworthy, was in a certain sense unavoidable. Feeling that everything has worked itself out for the best, Isaburo retires, gives up his duties to his son, and at last Mifune takes off that chonmage skullcap covering his hair, because the day the lead actor in a samurai movie actually does look like an Edo Period samurai is a day you'll be waiting on forever.
And so did the Sasahara family live happily ever after, taxing the peasantry for all they need and abiding contentedly in their spacious rice-paper mansion—until, that is, they don't. For just as their lord gave them Ichi when it was inconvenient to have her around, now their lord wants her back. Naturally, neither Yogoro nor Ichi have the slightest desire to accede to this insane request, and Isaburo, inspired by all the things his son has gained through Ichi that he has never once known—happiness, togetherness, and love—feels something else new, too. And that, of course, is rebellion.
You'd be right to guess that the constant theme of Kobayashi's work was the plight of the individual within an immoral system—most of his jidaigeki, and a surprisingly high percentage of his contemporary works as well, spoke directly to the fascist legacy of Imperial Japan, still being worked through earnestly in the post-war era. Those films were often ribboned with hints of Kafkaesque absurdity, too. And nowhere is that more true than in Rebellion, which, like Harakiri, posits that even noblemen, relatively high up on the food chain, were still made only puppets by the very basis of their own power, indoctrinated from birth to obey any command (or accept any "honor"), no matter how stupidly unfair or ridiculous. Not for nothing is one of this film's very first narrative images also its most sublimely revolutionary and perfectly shot, an equation of Isaburo and his sword, each flicking in and out of existence as the focal plane moves back and forth between them. (It would be extraordinary photography, even if it had nothing to say: it's almost mind-bending, and it is eye-bending, the way Kobayashi and cinematographer Kazuo Yamada continually obliterate the man in favor of the sword, and vice versa, with nothing but their lens, like an in-camera exercise in Kuleshov's theory of editing. But it does have something to say, and something pretty profound, in my view; you just need the rest of the movie, including its final shots, for context.)
Women, of course, had the very worst of it—and Ichi even has it worse than most, being essentially a sexual slave (which would be true of most wives, in any country, prior to, oh, let's say 1900). But Ichi can't even take solace in the stability of being just one man's property.
As such, it is hardly a surprise that Rebellion doubles down on Harakiri's severe claustrophobic geometry—at least Harakiri existed mostly in the fresh air of a nice courtyard. Japanese cinema, especially in its Golden Age, and especially-especially in its period pieces, had a tendency toward frighteningly rigid compositional structure. Almost naturally, perhaps—Japanese architecture and interior design being frighteningly rigid already. In fact, the first actual images of Rebellion, accompanying its credits sequence, are indeed a series of shots of exactly such architecture—as seen from the most distressing possible perspectives, too. (It could come off as a placeholder in another movie; it doesn't here.) But Kobayashi had a way of ratcheting up even this general tendency. And so, yes, Rebellion can be described, at some risk, as an endless series of rooms, filled with stern, uncomfortable-looking kneeling figures, arranged in a tight and seemingly-prescribed order, perpetually and sneeringly (but sometimes earnestly) discussing what Must Be Done About The Situation.
And it is simply fantastic, fascinating filmmaking, punctuated by Toru Takemitsu's traditionalist score, and marked by an obvious but satisfying symbolic scheme—above all our story's turning point, when Isaburo finds Ichi in the courtyard, hewing close to the narrow, angular stone path. Instead of following her footsteps, he strides directly through the well-manicured garden to console her—leaving ugly footprints in the dust behind him, but not giving a damn. It's altogether breathtakingly pristine, if not always that blatant, Kobayashi's visual metaphors ranging from the mottled shadows that seem to always find a way to land on the daimyo's venal steward's face and render him a visual cancer upon the screen, to the way that even in their love, Ichi and Yogoro are never seen to touch until it is almost too late.
But as I said, it's an approach that comes with some danger, namely, that it could become monotonous—"austere black-and-white photography of people sitting ritualistically in rooms, themselves made of black-and-white rectangles, constantly discussing inside-baseball political stratagems" does fail to strike one as the most promising description of a samurai movie possible. And one can imagine the martial arts crowd getting fidgety in 1967, on both sides of the Pacific. "Imagine," I said—as opposed to "sympathize with." For whatever else it is, Rebellion is an absolute wonder of slow-roiling tension. Like Harakiri, it's more of a thriller than a chanbara film, and for almost its entire runtime, with Mifune's centerpiece performance becoming more unbound and natural and serenely angry with each scene, and with each delaying tactic succeeding only for a little bit until it fails, and the explosion of great, bloody violence becomes inevitable...
...Which is where we do have to discuss the really obvious flaws of Rebellion. In a way, these flaws almost make one even prouder of Kobayashi and Yamada, since it's outright shocking that Rebellion could be this formally rigorous and splendid, and still reveal itself, in extremis, as apparently this fucking cheap, quick, and tossed-off. In Rebellion, there is a thirty-second shot—one of those rigorous, splendid shots, as all of them are—where a boom mike is visible the entire time, and when Go Kato stands up, it occludes his whole face. But even this take-one-got-it faux pas is insufficient to prepare you for the sheer trashiness of Rebellion's big fight choreography, whereupon Mifune is rendered a swordsman of such power he really only needs to kind of gesture at stuntmen, in order to get them to fall down and die. (Yet, frustratingly, when the sound design indicates that he has, indeed, killed them quite dead, it also tends not to be as permanent as one would prefer, as apparently Kobayashi told his stuntmen that in the absence of Mifune's lethal gestures they were free to get back up.) And so Rebellion is basically everything the best chanbara movies should be—genuinely heartbreaking, politically meaningful, and dreamily mythic despite it all—but still doesn't manage to be a terribly good one, at least when graded upon the single most important metric of the genre.
Strangely, it doesn't matter nearly as much as it should. (It helps a lot, admittedly, that once its action narrows down to a fine point, occupied only by Mifune and Nakadai, their ancient friends now turned inexorably into enemies, Rebellion's choreography gets way better. And even if a single, sharp, swift duel is one very thin reed for the swordplay fans to hang onto, damned if it ain't one for the ages regardless.)
A pity then! Because, otherwise, Samurai Rebellion is almost entirely perfect. Its other sin—such as it is, though it is very noticeable this second time around—concerns its women. On the one hand is Ichi, whose unveiling as Yogoro's stoic pixie dream wife at least mildly flattens her character; on the other is Suga, whom the film never even dreams of meeting on her own terms as the Sasahara matriarch, rather than just the bitchy Samurai Lockhorns archetype Isaburo perceives her as. Between the two, it's clear that Rebellion isn't nearly as feminist as it thinks it is.
It's humanist, anyway; and a film that was made in 1967 Japan being feminist at all is, of course, at least a little bit of a miracle. Beyond everything, and beyond a fair few eyebrow-raising mistakes, it is breathtakingly well-made, then; and it is rendingly tragic. Maybe it's not quite Harakiri. But most movies don't even get this close.