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Samurai Rebellion
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by Jay Seaver

"You don't mess with a samurai's family. You just don't."
5 stars

As great as samurai movies, I sometimes have a hard time getting invested in the stories. After all, these stories often hinge on formal codes and hierarchies that are alien to me. But even if you're as thoroughly ignorant of eighteenth-century Japan's culture as I am, it's not hard to be hooked by "Samurai Rebellion" - after all, what's more universal a story than a man fighting to preserve his family?

Of course, the family must first be assembled. We meet Isaburo Sasahara (Toshiro Mifune), a middle-aged samurai who has long served the family of Lord Masakata Matsudaira (Tatsuo Matsumura). The Lord tires of his haughty and disrespectful mistress Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa), and decrees that one of the Sasahara sons take her off his hands by marrying her. Isaburo initially finds this demeaning, but when son Yogoro (Takeshi Kato) falls in love at first sight, the father relents.

Time passes. Ichi surprises everyone (including herself) by returning Yogoro's love and being a good wife and mother. Isaburo retires to act as an advisor to his son. When the Lord's legitimate son dies, he orders Ichi returned to raise the son she bore him. The Sasaharas refuse. Neither side is willing to back down, and it comes down to drawn swords.

There's a lot of family drama going on; the only real action for the first half of the movie or so is Isaburo testing new swords on straw dummies. Director Masaki Kobayashi builds up our investment in these characters, showing us how even though Isaburo seldom fought in battle, he finds his new life much more peaceful. To be the doting grandfather suits him, and not having to worry about outside opinions drains much of the tension from his marriage. We grow to like the Sasaharas, and we need to be given time, so that we can believe that preserving this family imposed from above is worth defying tradition, abandoning decades of loyalty, and risking lives.

Of course, when the time for risking lives comes, we see Isaburo welcomes it in spite of the danger. There's a sort of black excitement in his voice as he instructs his servants to lay down tarps in anticipation of the Lord's attack on his house, so that the blood will not stain the floors and tatamis. It's the Toshiro Mifune we've been hoping to see unleashed for the whole movie: Confident, righteous, ready to explode. It's the next step in Mifune's evolving performance from the low-key retainer whose dissatisfaction in the first act is only visible in contrast to his contentment in the second.

He's ably supported by the rest of the cast. Yoko Tsukasa's Ichi undergoes a similar transformation, as her arrogance is torn away, yielding to not just new-found humility but a better form of pride. We see the difference between how she meekly submit when the lord gives her away and her genuine wish to please her new mother in law. We see how being torn away from a second child would devastate her. As that domineering mother-in-law, Michiko Otsuka is unpleasant, coming off as both being a product of her environment and deriving genuine enjoyment from being mean. There's no chemistry between her and Mifune, but that's the point: Isaburo recognizes that his son's marriage contains something vital that his lacks. Also notable is Isao Yamagata as Shobei Tsuchiya, Isaburo's friend and fellow samurai, who will, of course, be sent to confront Isaburo when he defies their master. And, of course, Tatsuya Nakadai as another friend who sympathizes with his plight.

Though Kobayashi paces his film deliberately, it never feels slow. It's some time before the critical event of Lord Matsudaira demanding Ichi's return occurs, and he uses it well, making his cast more than general concepts. When the time for action does come, it comes with little holding back - Isaburo is right to lay down those tarps. It's also a story without foregone conclusions; the bitter irony is that the Sasaharas' fight to preserve their family will almost certainly cost the lives of some of its members.

As the fight spills from Isaburo's cramped home to the widescreen countryside, it's tough to miss the symbolism of a man achieving freedom from the unfair rules that have governed his life. Even if the title suggested a large-scale samurai uprising, this more personal story is no less exceptional for its scale.

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originally posted: 02/05/06 14:55:28
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User Comments

2/08/06 y2mckay One of Mifune's best non-Kurosawa films - exceptional 5 stars
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  DVD: 25-Oct-2005



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