Off-List: Samurai Rebellion
The second off-List movie of 1967 is “Samurai Rebellion” by Masaki Kobayashi, recommended to me by Bea at Flickers in Time.
This is a period piece taking place in the middle of the Shogun period (18th century), a time where Japan was totally dominated by the feudal relationships between masters and vassals. Isaburo Sasahara (Toshiro Mifune) is samurai and vassal to the daimyo of the region. He is apparently a fearsome swordsman, but also under the thumb of his wife. When the daimyo decides to dump his concubine Lady Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa) on Isaburo for her to marry his son Yogoro (Go Kato), his wife insists that he refuse. There must be something wrong with the girl if she has been dumped after she has given birth to a son. There are serious repercussions to such a refusal for Isaburo and while he disagrees with his wife, she insists and he tries to refuse, but they are forced to take her in to Isaburo’s wife’s surly chagrin.
The match turns out to be a good one. Ichi and Yogoro truly loves each other and they get a little daughter, Tomi. Then the daimyo dies, leaving Ichi’s son as the sole heir. The steward calls Ichi back to the palace since it is disgraceful that the heir’s mother is married to a mere vassal. Ichi refuses, Yogoro refuses to let her go and Isaburo, recognizing their love, supports them. Only the wife and Yogoro’s brother want to get rid of Ichi and tricks her to go to the castle. This makes Isaburo and Yogoro mighty upset and they demand her back. The steward cannot honorably back down and it ends in massive bloodshed.
The issue under discussion here is the feudal loyalty bond versus the moral right. Isaburo is bound to his liege lord as is everybody in Japan at this time and the obedience expected is absolute. But what happens when the orders become immoral? Isaburo is a good and obedient vassal, but is forced to make a call between the feudal loyalty or the moral right. In his honor codex the moral right here takes precedence, but as there is no room for this in feudal Japan he places himself outside society and becomes a rogue.
Isaburo as representative of the moral right is also underscored by the feudal master’s use of immoral methods. They blackmail Ichi, they threaten to kill her, they show up, cowardly, in force to apprehend him and in the end, they have musketeers shoot him. To the samurai guns were dishonorable weapons and it takes dishonor to fell him. In opposition to this, Isaburo has a fight with his friend Tatewaki Asano (Tatsuya Nakadai), who guards the ports of the fiefdom, in honorable hand to hand combat where Isabura wins because he has the moral right on his side.
There is a lot to like in this movie. The depiction of the samurai era is fascinating in its own right, and this is one of the best I have seen. There is something about the formalism of everything in samurai life, talking, eating, moving, even the living spaces, that is tremendously fascinating. A highlight is of course is the swordplay. Where a western brawl may resemble a dog fight, two samurai facing off is more akin to a cat fight. The moves, jerky and sudden, the slow guarding, circling each other and the strikes, clean, fast and decisive. This is a dance and beautiful to watch, despite its horrific purpose. Compared to this, gunfight is dirty, crude and ugly.
This is not a happy movie. In fact it is terribly tragic and sad, but there is a moral beauty here that is undeniable and I thoroughly enjoyed watching it.
It is highly recommended.