September 24, 2013
Samurai Rebellion (1967)
Grade: 68/100

Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Yôko Tsukasa

What it's about. Set in 18th century Japan. Middle-aged Isaburo (Toshirô Mifune) has a plum position as an expert swordsman within a small empire controlled by cunning and selfish Lord Masakata (Tatsuo Matsumura).

Masakata's concubine Ichi (Yôko Tsukasa) delivers Masakata's second child, Kikuchiyo, a son. Masakata's heir is Masamoto, first-born by another woman. Ichi station is replaced by a younger mistress. Ichi batters both lord and mistress. Masakata disposes of Ichi by ordering Isaburo's grown son, Yogoro (Gô Katô) to wed Ichi.

Ichi arrives in the Isaburo household to find she has a shrewish mother-in-law, Suga (Michiko Otsuka), an obstinate father-in-law, and a reluctant groom. But surprisingly, Ichi proves to be the ideal wife, and soon bears a daughter, Tomi. Meanwhile, Isaburo retires from samurai duty for Masakata in favor of Yogoro.

Unluckily, Masakata's son Masamoto dies, which makes Kikuchiyo the heir, and promotes Ichi to the heir's mother. Masakata orders her return to the castle, but Ichi resists, backed by Yogoro and (especially) Isaburo. The rest of the family resists, including Yogoro's contemptible brother Bunzo (Tatsuyoshi Ehara).

Yogoro's actions anger Masakata, who sends a regiment of samurai to wipe out Yogoro and his highly dangerous father. But Masakata is unable to convince Isaburo's friend, Tatewaki (Tatsuya Nakadai), to draw his sword against Isaburo.

How others will see it. Following the prolonged filming of Red Beard (1965), which kept Mifune from lucrative outside projects, Mifune broke with his legendary long-time director Akira Kurosawa.

Samurai Rebellion was made by Mifune's own production company, and it benefited from his generous paycheck from his role in Grand Prix (1966). Samurai Rebellion was generally well received, picking up the foreign press award at Venice and winning three major trophies (though none for acting) at the Kinema Junpo Awards. The Oscars and BAFTA, however, ignored the movie.

Today, Samurai Rebellion has a high user rating of 8.0 at imdb, though the vote total of 4,557 is somewhat small. Young men enjoy the film most. There is a substantial gender gap (8.2 from men versus 6.7 from women). Presumably, women react negatively to the violence and slaughter that closes the movie, including Ichi's own demise.

How I felt about it. For the first two-thirds of the film or so, the movie is suspenseful and has only one significant structural problem: Ichi's excessive pride. It is natural for her to have contempt for Masakata and his new young mistress. It defies plausibility that she would take this contempt to such extremes as physically assaulting them, or encouraging actions that would cause her husband and father-in-law to die in a futile attempt to "save" her from a comfortable life in the Masakata's castle.

The chamberlain would not take Ichi to Isaburo and Yogoro until he was certain that she would agree to his terms. Which makes the climactic scene dubious.

The actions of Isaburo and his impressionable son Yogoro are more credible, especially when moments of doubt flicker on Yogoro's visage. But the film falls apart in the final third, when Isaburo wipes out a slew of hapless samurai merely by moving his sword once per victim, particularly after he has been shot three or four times. And if Masakata has so many armed snipers, why not have some of them shoot Isaburo instead of sacrificing half the young men in the fiefdom?

Finally, we don't believe that Tomi's wet-nurse Kiku would carry the infant Endo. This would be a dangerous and difficult journey, and both Tomi (Kikuchiyo's half-sister) and Kiku would likely have a better life in the fiefdom.

Kiku's actions make sense only to allow the director to paste an upbeat ending on a downer plot. Masakata would not punish an infant girl, and a blood relative of the family, for the actions of her parents.

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