Have You Seen… Samurai Rebellion (1967)?

Welcome to ‘Have You Seen….’ a regular column exploring an interesting film that is worthy of greater attention – for good or for ill. The focus is on the underseen, the undersung or the underrated – or just those films you just need to write about. The focus is analysis more than evaluation so, expect spoilers!

To paraphrase film critic Mark Kermode, in Samurai Rebellion, there is a lot of Samurai before the Rebellion. Though the (frankly rather bad) current poster gives the impression of a bloody B-movie, this is completely not that film. It is definitively a samurai film, though, because samurai identity is actually all about restriction, hierarchy, social codes and obedience, and this is a film firmly about these things. This is a film about existing in this repressive system, and being complicit in its evils.

This is why the title is excellent, as director, the legendary Masai Kobayashi, manages to trick the viewer just like he did with Harakiri (also known as Seppuku, and one of my favourite films of all time). That film, as explored on this podcast, tells a brilliant anti-samurai story that rallies against the cruelty of the social structure at the time, and in the process becomes a highly effective critique of corporate power in Japan – and of militarism. To this extent, Samurai Rebellion is a continuation of these sensibilities. The film even includes a moment where the lead, when asked to commit Seppuku, just says: ‘Seppuku? Hah. Hah.’ As if the film is a knowing continuation of not delivering your samurai expectations, even in regard to what his previous foray in the genre had to offer. The title establishes these expectations though, as both words contemporarily connote excitement and cinematic adventure. We are so used to Samurai as shorthand for a style of action film and Rebellion just feels like another hardcore word to put in the hardcore name of your hardcore movie. It feels like you could just replace each word with its connotation: Hardcore Hardcore, and leave it at that.

The thing is, we are so used to superfluity in movie titles, of bold sounding nouns and adjectives merely existing to make it sound interesting. This is true to the extent that you may, at first, not even consider the contradictory elements of the title. Samurai, despite its modern cinematic connotations, truly denotes the order and obedience – and complicity in an oppressive hierarchy – as mentioned earlier. This identity is the opposite of Rebellion, making the title actually very interesting. To rebel is not to be a samurai, and – as the film illustrates – so much of maintaining social rank is performing as your social rank, and to step outside of expectation is to relinquish your role. For a samurai to rebel is to stop being a samurai. The Rebellion of the title does refer to the final movement, where our main character – a samurai, of course – takes on his Lord and the system he was a part of, slashing through them all with his sword. But the title also refers to a more symbolic rebellion, the need to rebel against conservatism and the rigid social hierarchies that enforce inequality.

Samurai Rebellion is also the first Kobayashi film to star the iconic Toshiro Mifune (he is brilliant in it, though Kobayashi has noted he was distracted by starting a production company – he co-produces this film – and also speaks of how inaudible many of his lines were (before they edited them), a trend with Mifune that Kurosawa also comments on in his autobiography). Even during 1967, Mifune was synonymous with the samurai film. He was Yojimbo. He was Kikuchiyo from Seven Samurai. He was Tajomaru in Rashomon. He was Rokurota Makabe in The Hidden Fortress. He was Musashi Miyamoto in Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy. I could keep going. Put simply, though Tatsuya Nakadai (the star of Harakiri, and frequent Kobayashi collaborator) is a strong runner up, Toshiro Mifune is the definitive cinematic samurai. His casting here sets an expectation that the film is able to subvert and comment upon. Interestingly, though best known for his renegade ronins, Mifune’s performance here is most in line with his starring role in Red Beard (my favourite Kurosawa film) or even his supporting turn in Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom. Red Beard does echo through Samurai Rebellion. That was his final film with Akira Kurosawa, the last of 16 throughout the director’s career, and this context hangs heavy over the film. There is a feeling of finality, of the end of an era, that is core to the narrative and to its wider themes. Samurai Rebellion has some of this. Mifune here is the reluctant warrior, his fighting days in the past – he even talks about how he is trying to be more to his family than just a sword.

Much like in Red Beard, the approach Mifune takes is of an elder statesman. And, much like Red Beard, though most of the film is about conversation and realist interaction, there is one moment of brutal violence where he completely lets loose (though, in Samurai Rebellion, this is more than one sequence, it is just relegated to the end of the film). Contextualising this violence in civility and in drama gives it more bite, and makes it as melancholic and tragic as it is exciting. Even when the film is in Rebellion mode, it still carries a real weight. When Mifune first breaks out and just slashes his way through an armed group, it is awesome. Mifune parries and reacts, strong and striking cinematography adding to the impact. But this fight is marked by tragedy and loss. There are no complete victories in Samurai Rebellion; even our heroes skill for violence is a remnant of his criticised past and therefore cannot exist without consequence. This singular warrior will fight the good fight, but cannot stand up against the system alone – this serving as yet another critique of the cruel power of these social structures. Though this is complemented by the strength of righteous collectivism, when our hero wins a duel his opponent notes it is because there are others on his side – though not in the fight – their collaboration brings a power that overwhelms the individual.

The issue though, is that there is always more of them. At the end of Samurai Rebellion we have a terrifying sequence that relies almost entirely on sound. You hear gunshots, and you know what is going to happen. There is a beautiful shot where Mifune stands before a expanse of long grass and bushes, and out of those bushes appear the opposing force, rising up out of nowhere to take him down. Thus is the power of these ingrained systems, here marked also by a technological superiority. Mifune’s renegade can be as skilled as he wants; the oppressive systems are larger and wield a technological might, even if they are sloppy and pathetic (Mifune slices easily through a couple of rifle wielding goons). Singular acts of rebellion are laudable, he does the right thing, but they are not enough.

This failure is also down to his complicity in the system. The film makes it clear that Mifune’s character has facilitated this regime, his engagement in it bringing it strength – his skills feeding into it. So, of course it overwhelms him. The opening act of the film excels in showing his complicity. We see him in a number of relationships that he is clearly opposed to. One weaker element of the film is the initial presentation of his wife, a horrible character who just furthers the regime and walks all over the family. Our hero is against this, but just conforms. The language around a domineering women is not great, but her overall arc – especially compared with the wider female roles in the film – makes her very interesting. There is a clear patriarchal critique in the film and through the wife we see how many women actively uphold the patriarchy. She thinks she is ruling the family, but we always see the wider social picture: the family are intrinsically linked to, and subservient to, the local Lord. To maintain the family is then to maintain the patriarchy. This is especially shown through the film’s core narrative: the Lord takes a mistress, much to her disgust due to feeling like a possession and due to a large age gap. Yet she is expected to be flattered and obedient. She takes out this frustration in a moment of rebellion, targeted at a younger mistress who does seem proud of her role. She is therefore sent away and married off into the family of Mifune’s samurai.

However, complicated reasons mean that she is ordered back after giving birth. She has become the mother to the heir of the Lord and therefore must return to being his property, making it clear that she was always only his property. And at every point, her patriarchal oppression is facilitated by the wife of Mifune’s samurai – her mother in law. Once again, the patriarchy sets women against women, and is upheld by those who foolishly think it empowers them. The most brilliantly anti-patriarchal moment is when this ‘object’ and ‘possession’ proudly states her own identity on her own terms before the climactic conclusion. The soldiers of the lord claim that she has used her status as the lord’s mistress to grant Mifune and his son (whom she married) a lesser punishment. She steps forward and claims that it was not the lord’s mistress that did this, it was the wife of this man that did this. She controls her own identity and ends her arc by asserting agency on her terms – and stands boldly against the patriarchy.

To return to the complicity of Mifune’s samurai though, he not only persists in an unhealthy relationship for the sake of it, he gives conformist advice to his son. His younger son, whose ascent through the ranks of this criticised regime actively works against his father – and leads to the tragedy at the heart of the film. Once again, engaging in a regime, even if you are against it, only strengthens it – and our hero is therefore punished. The film also starts with Mifune slicing through straw dummies, showing his capability for violence and his skill but, ultimately, its pointlessness. In the end, you feel he only ever slashes through straw men, as he has been put into so subservient a position in such a wider regime that he can never have any actual impact even during his violent rebellion.

His character does grow though, and this is presented beautifully. One of my favourite parts of the film is the actual reason for him finally going against the system: he witnesses actual affection. He sees his son and his wife actually care for each other and support each other, a relationship that is allowed to exist in the film in this way because it was born out of going against the system rather than furthering it. Mifune notes that witnessing this connection inspired him, and this is profound because it illustrates what else he has actually seen – or has not seen. It illustrates that the regime he lives in, which is full of marriages and relationships, is antithetical to actual human connection and genuine humanity. It is a powerful illustration of repression at a systemic level. How these codes of honour and civility are antithetical to legitimate humanity.

Another growth in his character is shown wonderfully cinematically. It is clear throughout that he is a great samurai, this of course being part of his undoing (he excels in an oppressive system and can only ever use its own tools against it). However, people keep remarking that his style is conservative; here, his sword fighting matches his personality. They say that when the opponent pushes, he steps back; when they push again, he steps back again. This mentality is echoed by the way he interacts with his wife, and talks to his youngest son. The fact that his swordsmanship, the core of his samurai identity, matches his complicity in a repressive regime is so key. The life of the samurai is intrinsically linked to furthering oppression and repression. However, when he takes a stand at the end, the camera takes a lofty perspective to show him on one side and a group of opponents on the other. Their swords are all pointed at each other and Mifune steps forward, and they all step back; Mifune steps forwards again, and they all step back. He has changed and has grown, he is no longer guarding the regime through his conservatism – he is actively pushing against it.

Though Samurai Rebellion lacks the recognition of The Human Condition (one of cinema’s finest achievements), Kwaidan or Harakiri, it is a masterful and deeply powerful work. Do not let the ‘hardcore’ presentation put you off, this is another deeply intentional – and deeply political – film from Japan’s finest filmmaker. Its themes run deep and it is one the better illustrations of the inherent issues with the deified samurai system.

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