In a pivotal scene from Masaki Kobayashi’s classic jidai-geki, the ageing samurai Isaburo Sasahara stands in his empty home, having just stripped it of all of its contents. Played by Toshiro Mifune, the actor’s legendary screen presence overcomes and overshadows his character’s age. When his granddaughter’s wet-nurse Kiku (Masakata Matsudaira) arrives, she is surprised to see the family home gutted so. She remarks that even the floor mats are gone, to which Isaburo responds that, “It’s a custom at times like these. So our feet won’t slip in the blood.” The scene captures so much of the film’s sense of foreboding and its complex, stylish marriage of mundane daily life and violence set in Japan’s stable but highly restrictive Edo period. Isaburo and his son, Yogoro (Go Kato) militaristically prepare for violent, bloody battle while methodically tidying up their home and ensuring that the baby is fed. The scene is a turning point, the moment when an old man and his son – used to a life of dutiful service – finally rebel with deadly consequences.
When the film starts, Isaburo leads a peaceful life as the head of the Sasahara family. The family’s home life is suddenly rocked when their lord Masakata Matsudaira (Tatsuo Matsumura), the daimyo of the Aisu clan, demands that Yogoro marry his discarded mistress, Lady Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa). Isaburo’s wife Suga (Michiko Otsuka) is violently opposed to the marriage, offended by the lord’s presumption that the Sasahara family would take in the disgraced Ichi. The intensity with which Suga pushes her husband to defy his superior contains Shakespearean echoes of Mifune’s earlier role in Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa, 1957) and begins to hint at the elder couple’s own unhappy union. True to his duty to the lord, Isaburo allows the marriage, which happily leads to a loving union between the young couple and is soon followed by the much-celebrated birth of their daughter, Tomi. But their honeymoon ends when the daimyo’s heir dies, leaving his and Ichi’s son as the sole heir to the throne. Unwilling to raise a motherless heir, the clan lord demands Ichi’s return.
Pushed to his limit, Isaburo stands firm against the daimyo, who eventually resorts to kidnapping Ichi and ordering Isaburo and Yogoro to commit seppuku, killing themselves for their disobedience. When the daimyo’s men come for the rebellious father and son, Ichi kills herself, hoping to spare her husband and father-in-law any more grief. But the two fight back. Isaburo kills scores of men, but loses his son in battle. The old man is finally defeated when he tries to take Tomi to Edo to inform the Shogun of the clan lord’s unjust overreach. Facing off against and killing his friend, fellow samurai and border guard Tatewaki (Tatsuya Nakadai), Isaburo is finally felled by a barrage of gunfire from the daimyo’s men.
The majority of Samurai Rebellion’s narrative revolves around family melodrama. A father wishes to see his son find love while remaining in a loveless marriage himself. Personal desires conflict with social expectations. New parents are forced apart by a selfish clan lord. Even in the end, duty dictates that friends must face each other when Tatewaki stands between Isaburo and his escape with Tomi. Tragically bookending Samurai Rebellion, this scene reminds us of the bond between the two men, which Kobayashi establishes in their shared disenchantment with the daimyo at the start of the film. Ultimately, Kobayashi offers a slow boil of interpersonal conflicts and resentment towards authority, erupting in a final series of violent deaths.
This sense of disenchantment, of resistance to power structures, is the film’s dominant theme. There is a constant sense of overbearing control throughout, whether from the clan lord or from more ingrained social mores. Isaburo’s unhappy marriage is only revealed through its contrast to Yogoro and Ichi’s affection for each other, but both are unions dictated by tradition. In a darkly comical and very satisfying moment, Tatewaki refuses to assassinate Isaburo, using the restrictions placed on his low samurai standing to stage his own mini-rebellion, cleverly subverting the top-down authority that has condemned his friend to death. Tragically, this same unwavering sense of duty forces Tatewaki’s hand when Isaburo tries to cross the border under his watch.
Kobayashi already had a long and rich history of challenging authority when he made Samurai Rebellion. “All of my pictures, from a certain point on, are concerned with resisting entrenched power… I suppose I’ve always challenged authority. This has been true of my own life, including my life in the military,” he says.1 Indeed, Samurai Rebellion echoes many of the themes that the director had already explored in his epic three-part Ningen no joken (The Human Condition, 1959), about Japanese wartime aggression, loosely based on his own experiences in World War II,2 and in his earlier samurai jidai-geki, Harakiri (1962), a film about retaining honour in an increasingly corrupt feudal system.
Much of this theme comes across visually. As Donald Richie points out, “the geometric patterns of traditional Japanese architecture are used to illustrate themes of social restraint,” with the opening credit sequence in particular focusing on confining details like the defensive castle walls and other dramatically shielded and threatening spaces.3 The director’s use of highly theatrical aesthetics also reflects an intricately controlled space, with selective spotlights and dramatic chiaroscuro effects lending a sense of artificial order to several of the film’s scenes.
Standing out in both Kobayashi’s career and samurai cinema more broadly, Samurai Rebellion is a rare treat. It somehow feels specifically situated while simultaneously timeless and universal. The film’s commentary on social and political power dynamics still resonates today. Its first scene features extreme close-ups that – while visually striking in their own right – also serve to cement the aesthetic bonds between the samurai film and the Spaghetti Western, reminding us of the continuous feedback loop that existed between the two genres. But we are also constantly reminded of the deep resonance of the jidai-geki tradition more broadly, throughout the history of cinema and within contemporary pop culture alike.
Joi-uchi: Hairyo tsuma shimatsu (Samurai Rebellion 1967 Japan 121 mins)
Prod. Co: Mifune Productions Co./Toho Prod: Tomoyuki Tanaka Dir: Masaki Kobayashi Scr: Shinobu Hashimoto Phot: Kazuo Yamada Mus: Toru Takemitsu Art Dir: Yoshiro Muraki
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Yoko Tsukasa, Go Kato, Tatsuya Nakadai, Michiko Otsuka, Shigeru Koyama, Masao Mishima, Isao Yamagata, Tatsuyoshi Ehara, Tatsuo Matsumura, Masakata Matsudaira