Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Samurai Rebellion -- A Shock to the System

I was a little reluctant to dip my toe in the water of this month’s theme. I have given serious attention to only three films based on martial arts, The Seven Samurai (Japan), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (China), and The Karate Kid (Hollywood). I also remember my sons watching Bruce Lee movies incessantly when they were young, but I only caught quick glimpses of those films as I carried the washbasket into the bedrooms or called them to dinner. However, I decided to stretch my wings and give it a try for Kung Fu month at the Café. I picked out the movie in the same basic manner that I used once to find a locksmith, by opening the yellow pages and blindly putting my finger on a name. In this case, I decided to go to my Netflix Streaming account and see what was to be had. I noticed a film called Samurai Rebellion which starred Toshiro Mifune, a great actor that I remembered from The Seven Samurai and also the marvelous mini-series, Shogun. The name sounded right, I liked Mifune, and thus my decision was made. How could I have known that I was about to see a movie that would not only keep me riveted to the screen, but has also now become one of my favorite films?

Released in 1967, the original title was Joluchi – Hairyo Tsuma Shimatsu, translated as Rebellion – Receive the Wife. For American audiences, it became Samurai Rebellion, a title that distributors felt would be a better attraction for martial arts enthusiasts. Produced by Mifune Productions and Toho Company, Samurai Rebellion is based a novel by Yaslaiko Takiguchi, with screenplay done by Shinobi Hashimoto. I am so ignorant of these films that even in my research I did not recognize other movies from these sources that I could cite as good examples of their work. I do know that director Masaki Kobayashi, production designer Yoshiro Muraki, and editor Hisashi Sagara, created a marvel of black and white beauty, utilizing incredible spatial orientation in the sets, and symbolic interpretation in even the look of the film that tells the story with as much importance as the words.

Samurai Rebellion does indeed include martial arts, but not as I expected. Set in the year 1725, it is the story of Isaburo (Mifune), a man who was once a great swordsman and has reached middle age as a samurai vassal to the Lord of the region in a time of peace. Isaburo does his routine, daily work as part of the Lord’s samurai guard. Without a war to fight, it is a time when he finds himself the father of grown sons and the sadly hen-pecked husband of his wife of 20 years, Suga (Michiko Otsask). Suga is a bitter, sour woman, and the marriage has never been a happy one. Family name and honor were the reasons behind Isaburo’s marriage to Suga, and he secretly grieves for the intimacy and love he never felt, and would never know. Isaburo has a close acquaintance named Tatewaki (Tatsuya Nakodai), a strange relationship between two men who apparently have some old feud, but who decided long ago not to fight it out so neither of their families would be hurt. Now they are friends, and Tatewaki seems to be the only contemporary who understands Isaburo’s state of mind. Tatewaki plays an important and unexpected part in Isaburo’s story.

Isaburo’s oldest son, Togoro (Takeshi Kato), is of marriageable age, and the Lord sends word that he wishes to foist off his troublesome mistress as wife to Togoro. Rumor says that she is a headstrong, belligerent woman who attacked the Lord and a new mistress out of jealousy. However, she is also the mother of the Lord’s second son, and cannot be punished. To disobey the Lord’s wish would mean dishonor and trouble for Isaburo’s clan. Togoro, in his desire to keep his beloved father and the family name out of trouble, insists that he will take the woman. This event triggers Isaburo’s life passage from his present status as a quiet man who has accepted his unhappy destiny to a strong father determined to save his son from the same fate. In a surprising turn, the woman Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa) is a wonderful wife to Togoro and a loving daughter-in-law to the sour and suspicious Suga. Togoro and Ichi come to love one another, and Isaburo feels great affection for Ichi. When Ichi finally tells her story, the great injustices and heartbreaks which have afflicted Ichi bind her even more closely in the hearts of the two men. She had been forced to leave her son because of the Lord’s unjust whim, just one of the many sorrows Ichi has endured. She turns to Togoro in love, and they build a happy life with their new little daughter, Tomi. Isaburo’s own happiness for his son is poignant and heartrending.

However, as Isaburo said to his friend Tatewaki early in the film, “The world never seems to go right.” The Lord’s first son becomes ill and dies, and now he demands Ichi back as mother of the second son who is now the heir to his realm. Togoro refuses, then waivers as the family, including his mother, quarrel viciously with him for his unfilial behavior at putting his wife before clan and name. In a meeting with Togoro and Isaburo, Ichi sees Togoro’s wavering determination, and she is devastated. Isaburo then turns into a tiger -- Ichi will not be returned to the Lord, Togoro and Ichi’s love must not be destroyed, Tomi’s parents must not be taken from her. Togoro regains his first determination, and the two men are ready to fight all of the Lord’s army if necessary. Isaburo’s almost-forgotten legendary gift with the sword is rekindled. The rebellion begins, and the story unfolds to viewers in ways of which they could not have dreamed. When martial arts come into play, the emotional effect upon the viewer is astonishing.

Sometimes, at least for me, it is difficult to know if a Japanese actor is a good one simply because of the enormous difference in manner and language emphasis. To me, the Japanese language seems to make everyone sound angry, even if they are not, and it can be challenging to guess at the acting ability of showing emotion because of those issues. But great acting is clearly evident here. Mifune was in his mid-40’s at this time, and coming to his prime in acting ability. He is simply a marvel in this complex role. Kato as Yogoro, and Nakadai as Tatewaki, both offer performances of depth. But it is Tsukasa as Ichi whose extraordinary acting prowess gives her the same power on film as the veteran Mifune. I would defy any viewer with a shred of soul to remain unmoved by this incredible actress.

I remember sitting with my Dad watching Toshiro Mifune in Shogun. We never missed an episode. Dad had been a tail gunner in the Army Air Corps, fighting the Japanese during World War II. I remember turning to him one night when a thought struck me like one of Isaburo’s sword strokes -- Dad and Mifune were the same age, and they might have been trying to kill one another. Dad thought for a minute with a far-away look in his eye, as so many of the men who fought would do when asked about the war. He just said “It’s possible, honey. But we were all just kids.” I learned something important about the supreme act of forgiveness possible to the human spirit from my Dad. I’ve learned something new again with Samurai Rebellion, about the universal nature of great film in a genre to which I had never really given a chance. I should pick my movies that way more often.


  1. Becky, thank you for sharing your movie experience, as well as a personal connection. You mention "blindly" choosing this movie, but one of your reasons for watching it was its terrific star, Mifune, whom you had seen previously and liked. And that's a solid reason to see a film! Since you like SAMURAI REBELLION, perhaps you'll check out another film from the director or another actor, and that will offer an array of cinematic opportunities. Kobayashi's movies are an experience and ones of epic proportions. Some of his work has received superb DVD treatment from The Criterion Collection.

    This was a supremely well written post. Hopefully, Becky, you've inspired readers to watch this film and inspired yourself to seek similar titles!

  2. I think this is one of the loveliest, most heartfelt posts anyone has ever made at the Cafe. Thank you so much for sharing this film so tenderly with us, Becky! Toshiro Mifune has a wonderful gift of communicating with his facial expressions, that transcends dialogue. I think you put it perfectly when you said that the look of the film tells the story with as much importance as the words. To me the masterpieces of cinema have this gift. Film is a visual medium first. The cinematography in "Black Narcissus" speaks volumes also, for example, without need for words.

    What I cherished about your post, Becky, was your sharing with us your family and especially your memory of your father as you watched Mifune in "Shogun" and discussed your father's time in WWII.

    The most endearing films affect us on some level emotionally. Yoko Tsukasa sounds remarkable. The story surprised me, too. It does not have a theme of revenge that is often prevalent in martial arts films. My husband and I will have to look for "Samurai Rebellion." I am so glad you chose this film and hope it opens the door to many more wonderful cinematic experiences for you. This is one of your best write-ups, Becky. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

  3. Becky, this is one of your best reviews (and that's saying a lot!). I haven't seen SAMURAI REBELLION, but have enthusiastically added it to my gotta-see list. Mifune was a great actor, but not just for the raw passion that he brought to his performances. I always thought his greatest gift was his ability to bring out the humanity of his characters, whether he was playing a smarter-than-he-looks samurai, a world-weary warrior, or a man who has missed out on the best years of his life. Is that Tatsuya Nakodai in the photo of the duel at the end of your review? The actor looks familiar and I know that Tatsuya Nakodai was in two of my favorite samurai films: SANJURO and YOJIMBO. Becks, you should pick movies at random more often!

  4. Thanks so much, Sark. You and Rick are the resident experts on martial arts film, and I wasa little nervous about trying my hand. Your compliments are greatly appreciated.

    Toto, I am overwhelmed at your response to my article. I really loved this movie, and it brought back a lovely memory for me. Bless your heart!

    Rick, as with your co-martial arts expert Sark, I'm so glad you liked my review. You really should see this one -- it is marvelous. And you are right, that is Nakodai in the duel photo. He is excellent in this movie, and his role as Isaburo's friend is complex and surprising.

  5. It sounds more like a samurai movie than martial arts, but I'm a big Mifune fan. Will watch this one on netflix.

  6. Great jobs, Becky, with a genre that you had to do some homework on. Mifune is great in anything he does, but you are right about how good Tsukasa is in this. Again, great job.

  7. Becky, I haven't seen this film but you make it sound so interesting that I need to. I agree with Kim in saying that Mifune is a fine actor and I enjoy seeing him in any film. I know my comment is late but I just saw this today. Nicely written review and I enjoyed it along with the cool photos.