Thursday, August 11, 2011

Samurai Rebellion (1967)


Samurai Rebellion
1967, Toho

Principal Cast:  Toshirō Mifune, Yoko Tsukasa, Tatsuyoshi Ehara, Etsuko Ichihara, Isao Yamagata, Tatsuya Nakadai, Shigeru Koyama, Michiko Otsuka
Director:  Masaki Kobayashi
Producers:  Toshirō Mifune, Tomoyuki Tanaka
Screenplay by:  Shinobu Hashimoto, based on a novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi
Cinematography:  Kazuo Yamada
Plot:  The mother of a feudal lord's only heir is kidnapped away from her husband by the lord.  The husband and his samurai father must decide whether to accept the unjust decision, or risk death to get her back. (Courtesy: IMDB)

Awards & Nominations

British Film Institute
Sutherland Trophy

Venice Film Festival
FIPRESCI Prize  
                                 

Samurai cinema is often overlooked by some as violent, bloody action movies.  While some certainly fall into the category, it's a certainly a crime to paint them all with the same brush.  The samurai films of the 50s and 60s were certainly much more than blood splattered sword fests.  Yes, they are exciting to watch and contain action sequences, but that's never really what the film is about.  Akira Kurosawa, whose legendary samurai films include Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Sanjuro is often considered the premiere director of this genre.  But it's his contemporary, Masaki Kobayashi that brings us Samurai Rebellion, a film that holds its own and then some against those samurai giants of cinema.

Samurai Rebellion is an incredible piece of filmmaking.  The story:  Isaburo Sasahara is a swordsman on the verge of retirement.  It's a time of peace, he sees no use for his skills anymore, so he puts his son, Suga, in charge of the family and moves on to a quiet life.  Enter the clan lord who ends up ruffling some feathers.  Apparently the young woman he married had the nerve to strike him, so he orders Suga to marry her.  Suga, in the interest of keeping peace within the clan agrees, but the family (and Suga) is pleasantly surprised when the marriage becomes a happy and loving one.  Ichi, the new wife, bears Suga a child and for a while, everything seems perfect.  But the clan lord changes his mind... he wants Ichi back and expects Suga to cooperate.  This is too much for the Sasahara clan to handle. Isaburo and Suga take a stand to protect their family, no matter what the costs.
Kobayashi directs this film masterfully, pacing it perfectly.  It starts off slow, he slowly builds up the tension of the film, but then gives you a breather.  He builds it up again, backs it off, and then really ramps up the tension until the last act of the film when Isaburo and Suga finally revolt against their entire clan in a bloody battle.

The actors, specifically Mifune as Isaburo and Yoko Tsukasa as Ichi, are phenomenal.  Mifune, if you've seen his work in other films, always brings his acting chops to the table.  But Tsukasa is so perfect.  She never overacts, and her character's tempered emotions are heartbreaking.  

The cinematography by Kazuo Yamada is gorgeous.  Whether shooting a large, sweeping, panoramic shot, a contemplative medium shot or a tense, emotional close-up, everything looks absolutely perfect.  By 1967, most films were shot in color, so the black and white photography looks especially great.

Isaburo Sasahara is indeed one of the great film heroes.  The final battle of the film is, like most samurai films, bloody and exciting; and Isasburo is an expert swordsman that kills off many attackers in a climactic scene.  But this is not what makes him a great hero.  If you get too lost in the action, you'll miss the point.  Throughout the film, words like "honor" and "duty" are used by the clan lord and his representatives to bend Isaburo and Suga to their will.  They MUST obey.  But the "rebellion" of these samurai is not about disrespect or lack of honor.  Isaburo realizes his true duty in life is to protect his family, above all else, and everything else is a distant second place.