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SAMURAI REBELLION

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Toshiro Mifune, Yoko Tsukasa, Go Kato, Tatsuya Nakadai, Shigeru Koyama
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Audio: Japanese monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, 2.35:1 widescreen
Studio: Criterion
Features: Interview excerpt, trailer, essay
Length: 121 minutes
Release Date: October 25, 2005

Fear often exceeds the perceived danger.

Film ****

In Samurai Rebellion (Jôi-uchi: Hairyô tsuma shimatsu, 1967), acclaimed Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi re-visits the jidai-geki, or period film.  His previous such effort, the brutal Harakiri (1962), had been a well-received if rather dark entry in the samurai genre.  This time around, Masaki Kobayashi would acquire the services of Toshiro Mifune, already the veteran star of many samurai films including a few collaborative efforts with director Akira Kurosawa.

Samurai Rebellion would not only be the first collaboration between Toshiro Mifune and Masaki Kobayashi but was to be Kobayashi's follow-up to his ghostly masterpiece Kwaidan.  The new film would also re-assemble some familiar names from Harakiri - screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, composer Toru Takemitsu and even the film’s star Tatsuya Nakadai.

Set in 1725 during the Edo period of Japanese history, Samurai Rebellion opens as skilled but aging samurai Isaburo Sasahara (Toshiro Mifune) seeks a bride for his son, Yogoro (Go Kato).  Isaburo is a loyal retainer to Lord Matsudaira of the Aizu clan, and one day, a steward from the castle informs him that his son Yogoro has been chosen by Matsudaira to wed the Lady Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa), once Matsudaira’s own favored mistress, now fallen into disgrace for displeasuring the lord.

How is such an order to be interpreted?  Is it to be considered an honor that will bestow further prestige and a larger fiefdom upon the Sasahara family, or is it perhaps an insult, disguised in pomp and ceremony, but an insult nonetheless?  Will a shunned and bitter Ichi reveal herself to be a vicious and poisonous serpent lying in wake to destroy the Sasahara family’s reputation as well?  After due consideration, the dutiful Yogoro decides to accept the arranged marriage despite his father’s initial objections.

Fortunately, what misgivings Isaburo Sasahara may have held initially about the arranged marriage are soon assuaged, as Ichi proves to be a docile and loving wife for Yogoro.  The union will be blessed in time with the happy birth of a baby girl, the infant Tomi.

However, Yogoro and Ichi’s happiness is to be short-lived.  When unexpected misfortune befalls Lord Matsudaira’s heir, Ichi is recalled back to the castle to resume her duties as head mistress.  An enraged Yogoro greets this news gravely, and his stern refusal to permit his wife to re-submit to the will of the disrespectful Lord Matsudaira is the catalyst for a violent chain of events that can only end in ruination and death for all involved.

As patriarch of the Sasahara family, Isaburo must now choose between following his lord’s orders or supporting his son and daughter-in-law in their decision to stay together.  At stake is a sense of moral propriety and true family bonds versus blind loyalty to an inconsiderate tyrant.  How far, then, will Isaburo go to uphold the honor of his son’s marriage, even if doing so is to blatantly ignore a direct order by the Lord Matsudaira and to jeopardize the safety of the entire Sasahara clan?

Close friends and family members will soon find themselves at odds with one another over the escalating conflict.  Relatives of the Sasahara family, fearing dreadful retribution from Lord Matsudaira, prepare for the worst.  Even Tatewaki Asano (Tatsuya Nakadai), Isaburo’s best friend and his only equal as a samurai warrior, is drawn into the conflict.  Tatewaki must eventually choose whether or not to confront his own friend in a duel to the death.

How ironic then that, as Isaburo had once feared, Lady Ichi’s presence may have indeed doomed the Sasahara family!  How heartbreaking then that a genuinely gentle love, rather than a vicious or bloodthirsty desire for vengeance, has proven to be the cause of this downfall.  That, above all else, is perhaps the most bitter tragedy at the core of this film.

With its tense pacing, brilliantly composed scenes, and savage fight sequences set to the beating of harvest drums, Samurai Rebellion is as much a tragedy about family honor as a condemnation of feudal Japan’s totalitarian society.  With its bleak violence and visual stylizations, Samurai Rebellion, along with Harakiri, re-energizes the samurai genre in much the same way as Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns had revitalized the American western.  In short, Samurai Rebellion is perhaps one of the finest examples of the samurai film and certainly numbers among director Masaki Kobayashi’s greatest achievements.

Video ***

Samurai Rebellion is presented in its widescreen Tohoscope original aspect ratio of 2.35:1.  The transfer was created from a composite 35mm fine-grain master.  Black & white images are crisp with only mild density pulsing.  Contrast levels are solid with deep black levels.  The cinematography by cameraman Kazuo Yamada is quite stunning!

Audio ** ˝

Audio is provided in the original Japanese monaural.  The eerily dissonant score is by Toru Takemitsu.

Features ˝*

Aside from a trailer (3 min.), the only other bonus feature is a rare 1993 interview excerpt (3 min.) with Masaki Kobayashi, in which the director briefly reminisces about making Samurai Rebellion.  A package insert also offers a general essay in which film historian Donald Richie compares and contrasts Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion.

Summary:

Tragic and violent, Samurai Rebellion is a devastating portrait of the consequences of human injustice and, as with Masaki Kobayashi’s previous Harakiri, is one of the true masterpieces of the samurai film genre.  Highly recommended!

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