Sunday, July 21, 2013

Samurai Rebellion (1967)

From the maker of the powerful anti-samurai stunner "Harakiri" (1962) comes another stab-through-the-heart masterpiece, "Samurai Rebellion" (1967). Much in the tradition of the former, "Samurai Rebellion" tells a potent story that focuses on the negatives of the feudal Lords in Japan, their unjust ways and the condition of their vassals, the samurai clan and their families who are always at the mercy of the powerful. Made to live and die by the Samurai code of honor, the vassals always have to "obey" no matter how irrational or absurd the command issued by their superiors.

In one such unfair episode, an aging vassal, a master swordsman, Isaburo Sasahara (Toshiro Mifune), on the brink of retirement is approached with a rather unusual request from his superiors, the head of the clan and the Chamberlain. That of getting his son Yogoro (Go Kato) married to one of the Lord's mistresses Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa) who can no longer stay in the Lord's castle for she faces banishment for incurring the Lord's displeasure! This strange request (an order, actually, or as they call it, an honor for the Sasahara family!) sets things in motion. One event leads to another, the Sasaharas experience new joys in their lives but these joys are short-lived, thanks to yet another startling request by the Lord that finally makes Isaburo take matters into his own hands and protect the honour and happiness of his family rather than bow down to the unfairness of the fickle Lord.

The above plot synopsis is deliberately vague, for just like "Harakiri", the USP of "Samurai Rebellion" is its skilfully designed screenplay that peels off layers in its steady progression and plays with the viewer's judgment and initial impressions. It is in Kobayashi's dexterous usage of the material at hand, that the entire weight of the film lies. With fabulously handled flashback-within-flashback scenes, we are made aware of certain hidden truths about matters that initially present an entirely different picture. Shinobu Hashimoto seems to have a penchant for writing such screenplays that test the viewer's judging abilities, what with "Harakiri" and Akira Kurosawa's much celebrated "Rashomon" (1950) also inducing a similar effect of shifting perceptions. 

With Kobayashi's fluid storytelling mastery, brilliant Japanese traditional music by Tôru Takemitsu, excellent cinematography by Kazuo Yamada, exceptional dialog and dramatically superlative character interactions, "Samurai Rebellion" packs a mighty punch. It is yet another bold film from the golden era of Japanese cinema, that quashes all the glory associated with the Samurai code of duty, honor and loyalty towards their superiors and instead focuses on standing up for what is right, and protecting the family's pride and joy. 

Not the all-powerful Lord, the Steward or even the head of the clan are worthy of any respect as is Isaburo, who, in fact, shamefully admits to being a henpecked husband for twenty years, lives with a loveless marriage with a tyrant of a wife whose noble family he had married into. For these sudden change of events in his life finally give him a reason to live and boost his spirit to protect and fight for his and his family's right. The immense satisfaction of sticking to his guns is palpable as he says "I've never felt so alive" when he rebels against his entire family with only his son Yogoro by his side.

It is a miraculous performance by the great Toshiro Mifune and could arguably be his greatest act ever, as he invests his talent to the fullest, and exhibits an otherwordly intensity and ferocity. It is impossible not to levitate from your seat and get all goose-bumpy and inspired at the same time, as he grits his teeth and clenches his fist and expresses his resentment at a momentary display of cowardice by his son and wakes him up to the fact that he must protect what is his and what he loves. That is the kind of involvement and dedication that the legendary actor has put into this role. Mifune just dives into the character of Isaburo, an epitome of self-sacrifice and valour, with all he has got, right up to the gut-wrenching final duel with another Japanese acting giant, Tatsuya Nakadai, who sadly gets less screen time but still makes a significant impression with his restrained delivery, heavy voice, piercing eyes and brooding intensity. 

It is the filmmaker's passionate handling of the subject that makes "Samurai Rebellion" so effective that you feel the angst, the frustration and completely empathize with the protagonist's predicament. It all comes through with an almost invisible effort, thanks to Kobayashi's masterful treatment. One can't help but be moved in some piercing moments that tug at the heartstrings. Hope still lives on as the narrative reaches its explosive culmination of a one man army battling against forces from all directions, yet steers clear of mediocrity and never comes across as unrealistic. At the end of it all, it does tend to make you miserable, but that is obviously, a merit. If you are looking for a cathartic, emotionally draining film experience, you simply cannot miss "Samurai Rebellion". It is a rare Samurai drama that is bursting with energy and violence and yet at its heart, is a poignant morality play. It doesn't get much better than this.

Score: 10/10

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