I can’t watch a western without thinking, “They didn’t have duels like that!” And this tends to ruin these movies. Does anyone think that when a life is on the line that a man will stand on ceremony and wait for his opponent to draw first? Or that, on seeing his opponent draw, he would be able to react fast enough and draw even faster? There is a word for this kind of thing: silly.
But I like the idea of the western. I like the moral clarity or, in the more interesting cases, the clear moral ambiguity. But I don’t like the duels. So if I’m to not be limited to The Ox-Bow Incident (great as it is), I have to look elsewhere. And there is nowhere else that is better than Japanese samurai movies. There are lots of duels in them, but they mostly don’t defy belief.
I think there is more than just that, though. There is much to like in Japanese cinema. Now, I’ll admit that I’ve over-sampled from the Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune wells. But I rather like Japanese film, in general. I even like the Gamera films, which featured a “terrifying” giant turtle—sort of the low-budget answer to Godzilla. However, what I really like are the more highbrow films. They deal with subjects that speak to me.
One such film is Samurai Rebellion, which I have had sitting around for a few months without watching it. In the last week, I’ve watched it twice. Frankly, I picking it up for two reasons: it stars Toshiro Mifune and it has “Samurai” in the title. On this second account, the film is kind of disappointing: it doesn’t have that much sword fighting action. It has some, of course; and it is rather well done; but Yojimbo it ain’t. In particular, it has a wonderful fight between Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai: the two who had that great fight at the end of Sanjuro.
Samurai Rebellion is a film about honor. And despite what many of my readers may think, honor is a big issue for me. In fact, it is one of my great disappointments with politics: politicians are too dedicated to their ideologies and moneyed interests to do what is best for their constituencies. And we will see when the debt ceiling comes up: will conservatives really be willing to damage the world economy in the name of fanciful economic policies? In Tokugawa period Japan, the Samurai Class would never have allowed such a thing.
The film tells the story of Isaburo Sasahara, the best swordsman in the land. The local ruler forces Isaburo’s son to marry one of the ruler’s ex-concubines, because she has become troublesome, even though she is the mother of the ruler’s heir. Isaburo’s son marries her and the two fall in love. But then the ruler dies and the ruling elite want the woman to come back and live at the castle, because she is the mother of the new (child) ruler. The couple refuse to do this, pushed on by Isaburo himself, who is in a loveless marriage and is inspired by their love. So they rebel. It does not go well.
As usual for Japanese films of this time (1967), it is beautifully shot. It also has the traditional settings that seem as though they were made to be filmed. There are also strong performances all around. I’ve really come to appreciate the more intense acting in the Japanese cinema of that time. Since then, as with films like Vengeance Is Mine, the acting has become more naturalistic. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.
Regardless, the film works primarily because it tells a very engaging story. After months of discussion of fiscal cliffs and gun regulation that will never get enacted, it is nice to watch people who stand for something other than wealth and power. Check out Samurai Rebellion; I think you will enjoy it.
I just checked and the film has a 100% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.