“During the powerful Tokugawa regime in Edo, there were 264 lords or daimyo. These feudal lords ruled their clan and the people under them. This story took place in one of these clans in 1725.”
Translation: this infuriating story of injustice is but one little story. The act of defiance displayed herein will be swallowed up in the middle of the Tokugawa regime.
Masaki Kobayashi knows how to film architecture. On the flip side, Japanese architecture knows how to be filmed. I’m unaware of a more photogenic domestic atmosphere than the historic Japanese home. Read most reviews for this movie and you will undoubtedly hear about how Kobayashi provides an onslaught of images that reflect the strict social structure that is the setting for this untidy human story. And yet it cannot be said enough: Samurai Rebellion is visually stunning. It is brimming with shots of pristinely manicured rock gardens and precisely organized homes – thin metaphors for the hierarchal structures and codes that define the lives of their inhabitants. The characters are full of passions – honor, love, loyalty, desire, greed – such fullness plays well within the austerely defined environment. When the physical surroundings and rigid codes intersect with the more emotional side of the characters, things happen: a footprint scars the carefully raked pebbles, a woman is discharged from the castle, a clan is threatened, bonds are broken. And then things get ugly. Somewhere in it all, an improbable love sprouts, trying to take root among the raked courtyards and clan loyalty.
In a complex nutshell: Isaburo Sasahara (Toshiro Mifune) is the head of the Sasahara family and a vassal under Lord Matsudaira (Tatsuo Matsumura). He is on the verge of retiring and making his son the head of the family, but first would like to find a good wife for him. Lord Matsudaira is a real selfish piece of shit. Through his super intendant (who, incidentally, resembles Mr. Burns), he forces a young woman, Ichi (Yôko Tsukasa), to bear him a son. She thinks he’s a disgusting worm, but does it anyway, believing she might spare other girls from the same fate. Once she gives Matsudaira an heir (his second), he moves on to other concubines. Realizing she can never spare other girls the horror of this old man, she resorts to violence and he sends her out of the castle. Matsudaira pressures Isaburo to accept an arranged marriage between his son, Yogoro (Takeshi Katô), and the uncontrollable Ichi. Isaburo does his best to deflect the offer, but is forced to accept it. As it happens, the two make it a happy marriage and it really warms the heart of Isaburo to see his son with such a dutiful wife. His own marriage was arranged, just as Yogoro's, but it was completely void of love. By seeing the happiness between Yogoro and Ichi, Isaburo experiences a new lease on life, no doubt enhanced when Ichi gives birth to a daughter. Lord Matsudaira’s firstborn dies and Ichi’s son becomes the first in line. Matsudaira, following clan rules, asks for Ichi to be returned. That Ichi and Yogoro now have a daughter is of no concern to Matsudaira and though his request is to return her voluntarily, it is clear that a threat of force is not far behind it. Isaburo, Yogoro, and Ichi fret over the prospects. Their decision, of course, will set them at odds with the ruling house, not to mention the rest of the Sasahara family, including Isaburo's wife, that would prefer staying in Lord Matsudaira's favor over the prospect of utter destruction.
The story intensifies when Yogoro's younger brother, Bunzo (Tatsuyoshi Ehara), tricks Ichi into returning to the castle. After discussing matters with Matsudaira's super intendent, she is allowed to leave the castle if both Yogoro and Isaburo will commit seppuku. Obviously, the laws and customs - the requirements of submission - were not working, not on the human level, at least. Each character seems to face a challenge or variety of challenges between the letter of the law and spirit of the code and his or her personal aspirations and desires.
But the problems do not rest solely on The Sasaharas. Lord Matsudaira shoulders a burden, too. The daimyo rules require that the mother of an heir apparent cannot reside in a vassal’s house. Yet, she is married to one of his vassals. If he takes Ichi from his vassal, it could easily outrage the shogunate or the other daimyo – and yet, he cannot afford the insubordination of one of his vassals. Add pride into the mix and do not be surprised when the raked pebbles are soaked in blood.
The film focuses on Isaburo. He is one of Lord Matsudaira's chief retainers, his escort. In the opening of the film, Kobayashi shows us that Isaburo has long since curbed his pride and ambition in order to benefit his estate (ie - fief and family) and serve the Suwa Domain. He has been a henpecked husband for 30 years, knows a thing or two about dealing with the daimyo and his other vassals and, despite it all, is a pretty good-natured, well-meaning creature. He is both prudent and patient. He wants happiness for his son and is very reluctant to accept the arranged marriage - reminding him, as it does, of his own life. But he accepts it. It is isn't until his family is forced to return the bride that he soundly rejects the daimyo's authority.
When Matsudaira is waiting for an answer to an ultimatum (for Isaburo and Yogoro to accept the fate of Ichi), he and his advisers are certain that Yogoro will finally consent to his demands. "Since it would have come to this anyway," he says to his advisers, "how dare they cause all that fuss! Yogoro was wrong, but Isaburo was insolent as well." Thus, we see how the lord views the issue. Yet, Matsudaira realizes some magnitude of the sacrifice he is asking his vassal to bear and decides that upon Yogoro's reply he will increase his fief.
Yogoro arrives and hands a reply, written by Isaburo, to the smiling lord. That smile quickly vanishes. [spoilers here on out] Isaburo and Yogoro decide to throw caution and their family to the wind in a gamble that winds up in near entire annihilation. Yet, by the end of the film, who could begrudge his decision? At no point does Isaburo, who has been prudent and wise, question his decision once he and Yogoro have set their course: not when Ichi dies, not when Yogoro dies, not when he is dying. His entire focus seems to be on the future - though he is well aware of the probable result. Given the un-winnable circumstance, one cannot help but feel that Isaburo's defiance, self-destructive as it is, was nevertheless worth it.
Kobayashi has an anti-authority streak in his work that is often expressed through the prism of the autocratic Tokugawa period. Samurai Rebellion fits right in with the more highly touted Harakiri in that respect. What makes Samurai Rebellion more satisfying over Harakiri, to me, is that while Harakiri is strictly a revenge tale, the dissent in Samurai Rebellion is aimed at achieving happiness - despite the fact that it ends in annihilation.