Most films I label “favorites” are either films that are just so good that they blew me away and remained indelibly imprinted on my psyche forever after or films that were all of the above but also had story elements that spoke to me and that I in some way could connect with on an emotional level. Samurai Rebellion falls into the latter of those two categories. It’s a film that has all of my favorite things: complexity, great acting, great story, intrigue, brinksmanship, confrontation between friends who are also rivals. And it has a lot of heart.
Samurai Rebellion is a film about conforming to societal norms. About people who do not want to rock the boat. Go along to get along. But it’s also a film about love. It’s not so much a run of the mill love story where lovers fight to stay together, although it has that too. It’s more about fighting to protect the idea of love in a world where genuine love is a rare commodity. It’s about people who know real love when they see it and are willing to do what it takes to keep the integrity of that love intact. Even if means rocking the boat. Or dying. As with most films that speak to me on a personal level, I can’t talk about the film without talking about myself. So I ask forgiveness now for any and all self indulgence and/or outright narcissism.
I first saw Samurai Rebellion when I was in my thirties, engaged and soon to be married. But it was also at a time when several friends and family members were going through bitter divorces and struggling with failing relationships. I was happily in love with my soon to be wife but I was surrounded by cynicism and bitterness towards love and I was in my own personal battle not to let that bitterness and cynicism be infectious or negatively affect me or my relationship with my wife. So I was able to somewhat identify with Toshiro Mifune’s character who awakens from a stagnant life to protect true love while others around him are perfectly willing to let it die.
Mifune plays Isaburo, a henpecked Samurai who is on the eve of retirement. He holds a high rank in the clan and his family is one of the more respected families in the territory. The lord of the clan wants to marry off his former mistress to Isaburo’s son Yogoro(Go Kato). Seems the clan lords mistress Ichi(Yoko Tsukasa) is an out of control shrew who has become “troublesome”. Isaburo’s wife is outraged and makes no bones about it to the men of the family who seem resigned to go along with the forced marriage in order to not rock the boat. After much family debate and a whole lot of pressure from the clan higher ups, Yogoro marries Ichi.
But to everyone’s surprise, Ichi turns out to be a loving, kind, honorable, humble, perfect wife. Which, to Isaburo, begs the question; why did she do the things she was accused of? Yogoro asks Ichi directly and discovers that Ichi was engaged to be married when she caught the eye of the clan lord who had decided that one heir wasn’t enough. Ichi refuses the clan lords proposal with clear disgust. So the clan lord, or rather his underlings, ask her if she’ll marry the clan lord if her fiancé agrees to bow out. Thinking this an impossibility, Ichi agrees. Of course her fiancé, afraid to go against the clan lord, breaks the engagement.
Ichi bares the burden with honor in spite of her disgust. She vows to not only give the clan lord an heir, but many heirs so that her fate will never befall any other women like her. However, after she gives birth to a son, she is quickly replaced by another woman. This infuriates Ichi who attacks her smug replacement as well as the clan lord himself. But now, Ichi and Yogoro have genuinely fallen in love and she tells Yogoro that she wants to forget her past and commit to a new life with Yogoro and his family. Isaburo is deeply impressed by Tsukasa’s sense of honor and is inspired by her and his sons genuine love for each other and before long Isaburo is a grandfather to a new granddaughter, Tomi.
Then news comes that the clan lords first heir has died. His only other heir is the son he has by Ichi. Soon, the clan lords representatives come knocking on Isaburo’s door, telling him that Yogoro must give Ichi back to the clan lord! Isaburo, quietly outraged, tells his son and daughter in law that their love has changed his own stagnating life. He leaves the decision to his son, telling him that he will back him up one hundred percent. He also tells Ichi that, no matter what, she must continue to say that she wants to stay part of his family even if it means the complete destruction of the family. Isaburo knows that, in spite of their vehement disapproval, the family will ultimately unite behind Ichi.
During a heated family meeting, Ichi is put under extreme pressure to return to the clan lord. She refuses. When the family storms out in anger over her decision, only Isaburo and Yogoro are left. But what neither Ichi nor Isaburo expect is for Yogoro to break under the pressure. In a moment of weakness, he says that Ichi should return to the clan lord. It’s a shocking moment that wounds Ichi to her very core. Isaburo angrily takes his son to task for giving in to family pressure and tells him that neither his family, nor anything that the clan lord could ever do to them is worth giving up on his and Ichi’s love. Isaburo tells them both that, after decades of enduring the death of honor at the hands of societal bureaucracy and his own loveless marriage, that Yogoro and Ichi’s love is now the only thing worth fighting for. Yogoro begs for and receives Ichi’s forgiveness for his moment of weakness.
But Isaburo’s wife is aggressively against keeping Ichi. Acting on her own(with the help of her younger son) she arranges for Ichi to be kidnapped and taken to the clan lord. Once there, she is pressured to remain but she refuses to play ball. The clan lords top men know that they at least need to pretend to follow societal conventions and continue to pressure both Isaburo and Yogoro into giving their verbal agreement to give up Ichi. They seek council from Isaburo’s friend Tatewaki (Tatsuya Nakadai), the only Samurai whose skill and cunning rivals Isaburo’s. Tatewaki realizes that Isaburo is playing a political game of cat and mouse that mirrors his fighting style and gives the clan council a plan to counter Isaburo. But an outrageously audaciously worded formal letter from Isaburo to the clan council and clan lord turns the tables on all of them(a scene that I literally cheered out loud at), putting the council and clan lord in a corner with no choice left other than a full frontal assault on Isaburo and his son. An assault that ends up costing the clan lord and Isaburo more than either bargained for. It also leads to a confrontation between Isaburo and his best friend and rival tatewaki who, after years of avoiding dueling with each other out of mutual friendship, finally discover once and for all who is the better swordsman.
This movie is awesome. I loved the intrigue and the relationships. It’s definitely not just another Samurai film although there are definitely some traditionally entertaining and rewarding Samurai film staples. But those moments are filled with great wit, suspense and poignancy. There’s one scene where a wet nurse for Isaburo’s grandchild comes in to see all the carpets in her masters house have disappeared. Mifune, in wonderfully deadpan “Mifune” style, informs the nurse that pulling up the carpets is a tradition, so that they don’t get stained with blood. There are other amusing scenes like this. In one scene, the representatives of the clan lord demand that Isaburo and his son commit ritual suicide. Isaburo tells them that he will agree if they give him the heads of the clan lord and the clan council in return. They decline. Samurai Rebellion is filmed in wide screen and beautifully photographed in black and white which gives the film a great gritty edge. there are haunting moments of silence scored with traditional Japanese instruments. Tsukasa gives just an outstanding performance as Ichi. Her scene where she gives her side of the story regarding her “reputation” is extremely touching emotional. As are all the scenes that she and Mifune have together.
Over two decades after that first viewing of Samurai Rebellion, I watched the film again and once again it spoke to me personally. In the film, Mifune’s Isaburo must protect his granddaughter Tomi because by saving her, he saves the legend of Ichi and Yogoro’s love that they all fought and sacrificed so much for. By this time I had a granddaughter of my own whose world was turning upside down as my daughter was going through a divorce. It was a time when I was even more protective of my granddaughter than usual(if that’s possible). Films that touch us personally are the most fun to revisit as they elicit memories without bias. They can remind us of good times and bad but we never know for sure what emotions films will draw from us and that is always rewarding and surprising. Samurai Rebellion has much in common with its non conformist, anti establishment peers of the time such as Hombre, Bonnie And Clyde and Cool Hand Luke. Samurai Rebellion is timeless but definitely a product of the times and fits in rather nicely with the films of 1967.