It is a trite thing to do, but when most critics try to laud a play or a film, or even the development of characters at their highest, they will use the term Shakespearean. This is odd since, while Shakespeare certainly was a great writer, the fact is that he was not adept, at all, in developing realistic characters nor scenes. His greatest plays- 7 or 8 out of his published 37 (perhaps a dozen to his most ardent champions) are great, in no way, shape, nor form, for their above mentioned qualities. Shakespeare, in fact, was not a dramatist, in the modern sense of the term, for pre-modern playwrights simply had no idea how to get in to the mind of the average man (or woman). One need look no further than Shakespeare’s own abysmally (and often painfully) bad and unfunny comedies to realize how actually denigrating he was of the common classes. It was not until the mid-19th Century, and the emergence of Anton Chekhov, George Bernard Shaw, August Strindberg, and Henrik Ibsen, that real drama came to the fore, and its highest form and art. By contrast, Shakespeare, and the host of lesser playwrights of the pre-Modern age, wrote quaint, simplistic, plays, with characters who were archetypes, at best, and stereotypes, at worst. Their interactions were the sine qua non of melodrama; but melodrama is not drama. It is not an interpretation of reality, which the highest art is.
My reason for this preface is because, in watching Masaki Kobayashi’s masterful 1967 black and white film, Samurai Rebellion, I became increasingly annoyed at the ridiculous claims by bad critics that the film depicts Shakespearean characters and situations. Nothing is farther from the truth., for Kobayashi’s film is so far beyond the Bard’s melodramas that the only fair comparison with his works would be to label the film uber-Shakespearean. Romeo And Juliet, as a work of art depicting true love, is a silly, childish, simplistic, and trite (even at its penning) tale whereas the love depicted in Samurai Rebellion is mature, realistic, and based upon the ineffable things that characters cannot evince. The film’s lead, and hero, portrayed by the peerless Toshirô Mifune (in a performance that rivals those he gave in Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well and High And Low) need only be compared to the hero in Shakespeare’s greatest play, Othello, to see the differences. While both characters are prone to violence, Othello acts like an animal, and easily falls prey to Iago’s rather transparent manipulations. Mifune’s Isaburo Sasahara, a retired samurai, however, is similarly manipulated by despicable bureaucrats and feckless and cowardly relatives, and responds with deliberation, clarity, and purpose. Both end up dying and inflicting same on others, but the situations and how they are played out are so far more realistic in Kobayashi’s film that to deny this vast gulf in quality seems laughable, at best, and incomprehensible, at worst.
The two hour long film, which won the FIPRESCI Award at the 1967 Venice Film Festival, whose original Japanese title is Joi-uchi: Hairyo Tsuma Shimatsu (???? ?????), or Rebellion Of The Wife Received, is in a sense, more accurate a description of what the film portrays. In many ways, Samurai Rebellion is the first small f feminist samurai film. Set in the early 1700s, Mifune’s Isaburo finds that he wants to step down and let his oldest son, Yogoro (Takeshi Katô) take over the family- a feudal class family dependent upon a local warlord. Yogoro has been ordered to marry a rebellious mistress of the lord, Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa), after she has been forced into sexual slavery to bear him a backup male heir. She attacks the lord, when she finds him with another concubine- not out of jealousy, but resentment that she was used, basically, as a walking, talking vagina for the old lech. Initially reluctant to marry her, Yogoro submits, and finds that they are well matched and find true love, including her bearing him a daughter named Tomi. Ichi forswears her son by the lord. Isaburo is greatly moved by their love, as his own marriage to Yogoro’s nasty mother, Suga (Michiko Otsuka) has been loveless, with only Yogoro as a balm. His other son, Bunzo (Tatsuyoshi Ehara), is a craven drone, who eventually betrays the family. After two years, the lord’s oldest male heir dies of an illness, and the lord wants Ichi to come back to the castle. This ideal of pretense, and looking good for others’ benefit, permeates the film with a great evil, as all the background characters seem little more than roaches, unable and unwilling to question the unethical behavior of their lord, even as most know that if it was brought to the attention of the shogun in Edo, the clan would be disbanded.
Bunzo lures Ichi into a trap, and she returns to the castle, but instead of signing a false document claiming that the Sasahara family gives up claims to her, Isaburo convinces his son to fight for his wife and their love. He promises both of them to do so, for their love has reinvigorated his outlook on life. This rejection of the legal document brands the two men as traitors, and assassins are sent to kill them. However, Ichi appears with a set of assassins, and rejects the steward’s claim that she quitclaims her rights as a member of the Sasaharas. She has been offered that the lives of her husband and father-in-law will be spared, but does not deny her love, and impales herself on one of her captor’s spears. Yogoro rushes to protect her, as she dies in his arms. He is then hacked to death by the assassins, as Isaburo dispatches a couple dozen of them, before impaling the cowardly steward on his own sword. He then buries his son’s and daughter-in-law’s bodies, and tells the wet nurse sent in Ichi’s place that he and Tomi are off to Edo, to tell the shogun of his clan’s evil ways, to bring them down.
On the way, he has to leave his lord’s kingdom through a gate guarded by his old friend, Tatewaki Asano (Tatsuya Nakadai, Japan’s second biggest male star of the era, behind Mifune). Without proper papers, Asano says they will have to fight. They do, after feeding Tomi, and Asano’s agreeing to be Tomi’s foster father should he defeat Isaburo. Asano throws the duel to Isaburo- the only time a Nakadai character lost to a Mifune character in a samurai film without it being based on the Mifune character’s innate swordly superiority (although the ending was preordained by the film’s opening scene. Then, Isaburo is preyed upon by more of the lord’s assassins, this time wielding guns. They repeatedly shoot him until he dies, and the film ends with the wet nurse picking Tomi up, clearly being the source of the betrayal and death of Isaburo, who laments, in his last breaths, that now no one will know of this outrage- one of the countless instances of injustices history glosses over via ignorance, and urging Tomi to grow up and be like her mother, then marry a man like her father.
In a brilliant stroke, Kobayashi uses the wet nurse’s betrayal as a classic element of melodrama, yet also as an intrusion of a realistic happening to undermine all melodrama, and all this highlights a brilliant screenplay, penned by Shinobu Hashimoto, from a novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi. All the other technical aspects of the film are likewise brilliant, from the direction of Kobayashi to the 2.35:1 widescreen cinematography of Kazuo Yamada- which features shots from above that show the insectoid nature of the lord’s vassals, to lighting that emphasizes the dual nature of some of the characters. Toru Takemitsu’s score is likewise excellent, as it never intrudes on the drama and only heightens it. The DVD, put out by The Criterion Collection, has few features. There is no English dubbed option, and only the usual difficult to read plain white font Criterion favors. There is also no audio commentary on the film, which is a shame. A work of art this monumental needs an explicatory track so that many viewers who sense that it’s good can learn the fundamentals of great cinema. There is a brief snippet of an interview with Kobayashi, from 1993, on the film, the original theatrical trailer, and an essay on the film from ubiquitous Japanese film historian and scholar, Donald Richie. Per usual, Richie’s essay has as many strong points as it has weak ones. Overall, the DVD package is a weak one ill befitting such a great film.
And just as the claims to being Shakespearean are inapt, and undersell this film’s qualities, let me invert such askew praise, and aptly praise the film by comparing it to two films as different from it as can be. Samurai Rebellion is, in its own way, as perfect and great a film experience as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, as it flawlessly combines philosophy, action, ethics, characterization, and many other elements, into a brew for the eyes and mind that has few equals. Thus nonpareil, any future works in the same vein need not be recklessly mislabeled under the moniker of a dead English playwright, but under that of a dead Japanese filmmaker: Kobayashian. There’s your justice, o Isaburo!