Every now and then you find yourself in the
company of greatness. That is how I felt while watching this film. Absolutely
masterful. I had randomly picked it out to watch because of its title which
implied a good rousing samurai film full of action and intrigue. About twenty
minutes into it I thought who the hell directed this movie – it is brilliant
and yet not at all what I expected. Ah, it’s Masaki Kobayashi. What I know
of his work could fit into a small thimble but I know that he was considered
one the giants of Japanese films during the 1950’s and 60’s with The Human
Condition trilogy which was really one film broken into three segments totaling
ten hours. I have never had the courage to approach it. He only directed
22 films in his life – he was often out of step with both the public and
the film companies – and of those only two were period samurai films – both
considered classics – this one and Harakiri in 1963. He also directed the
highly regarded ghost story Kwaidan in his first color film.
He tackled uncomfortable subjects that after WWII many Japanese had no desire
to be reminded of and even as late as 1983 he directed a documentary on Japanese
war criminals. He had been working for Shochiku for only a short while when
he was drafted into the army in 1941 and sent off to Manchuria. He was a
pacifist. Not a good position to take at the time and he refused to be promoted.
Later he was captured and spent a year in a prisoner of war camp before he
was released in 1946 and went back to Shochiku. His experience in the war
and his pacifist ideals shaped his filmmaking and his political thinking
all his life.
We see some of these themes in this film – individualism vs collective order,
the tyranny and acceptance of authoritative governments, honor in a dishonorable
world and rebellion against societal and family codes that determine your
place in the world. These themes bubble up, percolate subtlety quietly slowly
until you realize the trajectory it is on is almost certainly a tragic one,
in which individualism and dissent cannot be accepted because then the entire
house of cards will collapse. In a bloodbath.
Everything is done with such artistry – black and white cinematography with
each shot perfectly thought out, composed and framed, close-ups that dazzle
with their ferocity and dramatic intent, a powerful edgy score from one of
the greats of film music, Tôru Takemitsu, and acting as intense as
it is internal. And of course a great script with so much that is going on
that is unstated but well understood by the characters – where a simple word
can be a warning or an act of transgression that will get you killed.
The year is 1727 and peace reigns in the land. Two middle aged samurai who
work for Lord Masakata Matsudaira complain about how boring it is, that it
has been years since they have had to pull out a sword in order to fight.
These two samurai are Isaburo (Toshiro Mifune) and his longtime friend Tatewaki
(Tatsuya Nakadai) who are considered the two best swordsmen in the clan under
their Lord. Isaburo is a go along, get along type with an undemanding job
in a loveless marriage that he was forced into twenty years ago. His wife
(Michiko Ôtsuka) is a harridan of the first order but it is her family
that has influence so he has to bow to her wishes. At this point in his life
all Isaburo wants is for his eldest son Yogoro (Gô Katô) to find
a sweet wife that he cares about and give him grandchildren. Instead though,
an official to the Lord comes to Isaburo and asks that Yogoro marry Lady
Ichi (Yôko Tsukasa).
Lady Ichi was the mistress of the Lord and bore him a son but after she attacked
him for taking another women on, she has to leave the palace. Isaburo after
great thought tells him no – a shocking act of refusal – then they tell him
it is not a request, it is an order – again he refuses but Yogoro intervenes
and says he will marry her. Much to everyone’s shock, they fall very much
in love and have a child. Then the palace comes back two years later and
tells them that due to changing circumstances Lady Ichi has to return to
the castle. An order from the Lord. You don’t refuse an order from the Lord.
But Isaburo has glowed in the love of his son and wife and their child and
now the Lord wants to take it all away. Multiple negotiations take place
within the extended family that foresees doom if he refuses and outside the
family to resolve this but somethings can’t be resolved and Isaburo who all
his life played by the rules of the hierarchy and society prepares for a
personal war of rebellion. It is mesmerizing and powerful. The son and wife
are just as resolute, squarely looking the repercussions in the eye and spitting
Mifune simply towers above everything in this film like the Colossus of Rhodes.
That voice of his carries such authority and as he edges from his contented
life to one of dissent he grows as a person before our eyes as he throws
off generations of restraint and obedience. Nakadai has a smaller but significant
role as well with eyes that could burn a hole through space. Nakadai was
perhaps second only to Mifune as an actor of this period in preference from
Kobayashi and Kurosawa appearing in many classic films – in fact Kobayashi
discovered him working as a clerk in a store and starred him as the protagonist
in The Human Condition as well as Harakiri. He is still alive and participating
This is an intriguing “samurai” film – most of it takes place in the domestic
world of family – that Isaburo is a samurai has no real bearing until the
end – it is fascinating to see how it plays out within this very formal polite
structure of society – and it isn’t till three quarters of the way through
the film that suddenly tensions rise high and you realize that violence has
become unavoidable. This slow build-up is what makes it so powerful and tragic.