When Samurai Rebellion premiered, on May 27, 1967, the original Japanese title was Joiuchi—hairyo tsuma shimatsu, which means something like Rebellion—Receive the Wife. This title indicates the two concerns of the film: the social impact of an unheard-of act of rebellion amid the totalitarian excesses of the Edo period in Japan, and the domestic tragedy of the brave but traduced wife that precipitated it.
“Hairyo tsuma shimatsu” is the name of the story by Yasuhiko Takiguchi upon which Shinobu Hashimoto based his script, but the retention of the story’s title indicates that it was the domestic aspect of the film upon which Toho (the distributor as well as the coproducer) wished to capitalize. Much as it was later to insist on the manly Samurai Rebellion title for the English version, knowing that samurai sold well abroad, for the home audience it emphasized the “woman’s” aspect of the picture.
Certainly among Toho’s reasons for such emphasis was a hope of enlarging the audience, since women usually did not attend all-male sword-fight samurai sagas. Another reason might have been to thus publicize the devastating performance of Yoko Tsukasa, as the wife doubly betrayed by authority. Usually confined to demure depictions of the ideal Japanese woman, she here created a character ultimately stronger than any of the male figures around her, including the handsome Go Kato, as her husband, and the movie swordsman legend Toshiro Mifune, as her father-in-law.
Yet further motive for Toho’s indicating in the title the two poles of the story—the men’s revenge, the woman’s refusal of victimization—was that this could serve as a way to differentiate the film from the same director’s highly successful Harakiri, released by the rival Shochiku Company only five years earlier.
Although Toho wanted to emphasize that this was a new Toho product, the films actually had much in common. Both were written by Hashimoto and shared similar means of construction, both starred Tatsuya Nakadai, and both had scores by Toru Takemitsu. In addition, the black-and-white photography by Kazuo Yamada matched that of Yoshio Miyajima in Harakiri, and, of course, the director was the same: Masaki Kobayashi.
There was also a similarity of theme—rebellion against an invested authority. This had long been a thesis in the Japanese period film (jidai-geki), beginning with the early pictures, in the 1920s and ’30s, of such directors as Daisuke Ito and Mansaku Itami; continuing through the films of Satsu Yamamoto from the 1950s and ’60s; and up through those of Akira Kurosawa (with Sanjuro). But Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion heralded a new generation of “rebel samurai” films, made by directors who came of age artistically in the 1960s and took rebellion to new heights of iconoclasm, violence, and visual flair.
Having been so successful with the 1962 period film Harakiri, Kobayashi wanted to extend the theme and the style even further in Samurai Rebellion. His means are similar but his effects are even more expressive. Again, the geometric patterns of traditional Japanese architecture are used to illustrate themes of social restraint. But now, shooting in the widescreen format (TohoScope), he and his photographer could even more effectively hem in his rebellious characters.
The opening title sequence is an exhibition of confining details: the castle walls, built to repel attack; the low, brooding, protective eaves; the menacing donjon keep. Later, time and again, the image is invaded by architecture—pillars, doors, eaves. When, at the end of the film, the protagonists get ready for the final showdown by stripping the house to its architectural elements, they are indicating that they are visually as well as thematically getting down to basics. There is no longer time or space for the facades of tradition and formality in everyday life. The individual must stand alone, exposed—ready to fight and prepared to die.
Also shared by the two films is Kobayashi’s ability to comment through composition, to mirror what he is showing by the way in which he shows it. An early family conference has the four members stationed at different distances from the camera, a harmonious composition that is then rendered disturbingly asymmetrical by the departure of one of the members.Toward the end of the film, the clan gathers to reprove the rebellious family; unsuccessful, they one by one leave the room. A balanced composition, promising the stability and permanence of the ideal family, is here destroyed before our very eyes.
At the same time, aware of the resemblances to his earlier film, Kobayashi went further than before in his visual illustration of his themes. Since the historical period involved is a century earlier than that of Harakiri (the final scene in Samurai Rebellion, with the big sword slaughter, is dated for us in the dialogue: November 18, 1727, 2 p.m.), Kobayashi is able to show us power not merely hopefully holding on but at its zenith.
Though we are in a provincial court (that of the Matsudaira clan, in Aizu, some distance north of the capital of Edo), we are nonetheless watching a well-oiled and highly calibrated system of oppression. And Kobayashi closely examines the layers of authority and the means for stifling individuality. Details are important. We see the courtlike arrogance and obeisance of the officials; we note the intricacies of protocol; we watch, close-up, the katalike foot movements in the final duel; and we stare at each stage in the spectacle of Mifune’s death. It is he, of course, whose individuality is being stifled; he is the man who sees his daughter-in-law doubly ruined, the man who rebels, the one who dares to blow the whistle and who pays for it. And every time the blades or bullets of his enemies fell Mifune’s character, we wait and watch, amazed, as he is able to rise again. He can only do this so many times, however, before he can fight no more.
This attention to detail, to domestic surroundings, to the fact that the film is really more a “family picture” than it is a samurai “action feature,” creates a cinematic atmosphere eventually quite different from that of Harakiri. There is a definite intensity in both, but that of Samurai Rebellion is perhaps even more bleak, because the style is more sober.
The film seems made of less than Harakiri, yet at the same time there is a more cuttingly hysterical edge, much more blood, many more dead. Whoever it was who suggested that if Harakiri is somewhat Shakespearean, then Samurai Rebellion is plainly Jacobean, the observation is correct. We are here not far from the cruel, bloody, and impersonal world of The Revenger’s Tragedy and ’Tis a Pity She’s a Whore.
Kobayashi himself could have used the film as a further example of what he once called his major theme. He told film critic Joan Mellen that his pictures were all studies “of the individual against society,” and remarked to Japanese historian Linda Hoaglund that “all of my pictures . . . are concerned with resisting entrenched power. I suppose I have always challenged authority.”
Another related theme, emphasized in both films, is what the director has called the deception of history. “An incident of significance has taken place, while remaining unrecorded in official history, as though all were calm and nothing had ever happened. That is the deceit of history.” There is a complete cover-up at the end of Harakiri and at the conclusion of Samurai Rebellion. The last man left to know the whole story (Mifune) is dead, and the Edo shogun will never know what his Aizu daimyo did.
As an exemplar of the weight of traditional Japan, the director makes full use of classical Japanese art. He has said that in Harakiri he was “very much aware of traditional Japanese aesthetics—the stylized beauty of our traditional forms.” This is equally true of Samurai Rebellion. Here he uses the precepts of the official Kano School. This group of professional artists, perhaps best remembered for their monumental screens, were patronized by the powerful from the fourteenth through the nineteenth century.
In Samurai Rebellion, Kano-style screens and other art objects take the metaphorical space given to medieval suits of armor in Harakiri. Perhaps encouraged by the widescreen format, Kobayashi was able to create horizontal compositions, to laterally space his figures, and to enclose panning movements of the camera to evoke an atmosphere of moving within boundaries. At the same time, however, he uses traditional aesthetics for their own worth, for Samurai Rebellion is a ravishingly beautiful picture, as spare and powerful as a suiboku ink painting.
In the same way, the moral focus shifts from Harakiri to Samurai Rebellion. We have our villains, but they have become as complicated as we are. Power is seen as something dangerous not only to those who suffer from it but also to those who wield it.
When Samurai Rebellion first opened, nearly forty years ago, I wrote in my Japan Times review: “It is the feudal concept that is at fault, and not the men who seemingly control it but are actually controlled by it . . . Such human qualities as love, dignity, self-realization are—as a matter of course—crushed beneath the weight of this terrifying, if man-made, machine. This feudal philosophy (as lively as ever in Japan) is here attacked head-on, and if the hero cannot win (for Kobayashi is much too honest a director to let him), then he makes a grand display of his own immolation.”
In Samurai Rebellion, Kobayashi took his study of the individual against society as far as he could, and enriched it by refusing to restrict himself to the manly world of sword fights. By focusing on family, and particularly on women in family roles, he widened his subject and heightened its emotional potential.
Donald Richie is the author of numerous books on Japanese cinema, including A Hundred Years of Japanese Film (Kodansha International) and The Films of Akira Kurosaw and Oz (both published by the University of California Press).