(1967) dir. Masaki Kobayashi
It was only last year when I started getting into Samurai films, and the ones that I’ve been watching have been the recommended ones through Netflix and most of them have been produced for DVD by the Criterion Collection, which is the best of World Cinema, pretty easily. I’ve been enjoying them quite a bit, but I am still sort of gaining a full perspective on the true tropes and traditions within the genre. The films I’ve seen are sort of the high watermarks of the genre, and in some cases are pretty stylized. How much do they differ from the average? How do you tell your John Ford of Samurai films from your William A. Wellman, for instance? Is the Western the best parallel in Western cinema to compare?
I’m still working this all out.
Samurai Rebellion is directed by Masaki Kobayashi, whose film Kwaidan (1964), a telling of four ghost stories from writings by Lafcaido Hearn, is one of the most recognized of Japanese cinema. Something I’ve actually seen as well. His film Harakiri (1962) is also in my queue.
The film itself is definitely stylized in its compositions and juxtapositions. Kobayashi’s camera spends a lot of time on the forms and shapes of the exteriors and interiors of the buildings in which most of the story unfolds. Many compositions are almost abstract, shaping the specified world in which the characters live, artifice, patterns, sharp-edged pathways. The characters live and move amongst these shapes and structures, and perhaps that is metaphorical of the story, in which a loyal swordsman is tested by the rulings of his lord, forcing a bride on his son and then recalling her to his side. The structures of the Edo period feudal system and structures of social behavior (having to accept rulings with dignity and humility or be in contempt of the lord) are conforming and controlling, too.
The film actually takes almost all of its time before any blood it drawn. Perhaps the opening sequence, in which star Toshirô Mifune tests a sword by cutting a straw man, is a comment on the bloodlessness of this film. Mifune’s noble samurai who has followed the rules, accepting a hateful wife by arranged marriage and following the clan orders, which has left him a type of “company man”, realizes, by recognizing the love between his son and the former concubine who was forced upon him as a wife, he is moved to “rebel” against the system. This rebellion is one in which violence is only the final outlet, in which his honor and pacifism have gained him nothing.
It’s not until the final 15 minutes or so of the 2 hour film that the blood starts flowing. And it doesn’t really flow. It’s just the point when the swordsman has to start using his sword.
It’s interesting in that respect, and I considered the parallels perhaps between the samurai who has accepted the social world around him, kowtowing to the lords and “upper management”, turning finally at the end to a personal integrity. Is it in a sense like a modern “company man”? The Japanese “salary man”? It was 1967.
Though this film is shot in very effective black-and-white.
How do I put this within the catalog of Samurai films that I’ve seen thusfar? Not sure where to file it. And I mean that in terms of trying to understand the full scope of what is happening within the film, how it goes against the approaches of the genre, and how radical its position might be. It’s interesting, certainly.