SAMURAI REBELLION (Masaki Kobayashi, 1967)

1725. It is a time of peace, but upon Lord Matsudaira’s instruction swords are being tested on straw dummies in readiness for conflict. Matsudaira has a son by mistress Ichi (Yôko Tsukasa, excellent); cannot he let this matter lie either? Offscreen, Ichi is enormously displeased when she walks in on Matsudaira with another woman; or is it because Matsudaira fails to appreciate the reality, much less the primacy, of human feelings that he wants to rid his castle of Ichi’s presence? After all, his descendency is set with an older son by another mother. Much as he was pressured into testing swords, Isaburo (Toshirô Mifune, drawn increasingly tight) is pressured into accepting Ichi as a wife for his son, Yogoro, who accepts Ichi, and indeed falls in love with her, as she does with him. But when his older son dies, Lord Matsudaira orders Ichi and child back. Isaburo has had enough. This time he will not comply. His daughter-in-law shall cease to be a pawn. Blood will be spilled.
     In stark, unforgiving black and white (Kazuo Yamada strikingly cinematographed), Masaki Kobayashi’s Jôi-uchi opens with a survey of huge surrounding rocks emblematic of the capricious, cruel power of feudal lords against which, upon instruction, heads of vassals are supposed to crack. A cold passage of architectural details implies the low status of humanity in the feudal hierarchy.
     Kobayashi’s film is somewhat overwrought, and increasingly so; Isaburo’s nasty, carping wife sets off this strain in the material. But Nature attempts to intercede and prevail, as in the case of Ichi and Yogoro’s love. Shots stress the formal distance between those seated and engaged in “conversation,” but an open door between two such persons in one shot, revealing Nature outdoors, lets in a breath of fresh irony.

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