Masaki Kobayashi’s whole oeuvre is marked by his lifelong preoccupation with the complex relationship between the individual and society, the longing for freedom, and the struggle against oppression. Both as a member of the Japanese Imperial Army (the pacifist Kobayashi was posted to Manchuria during World War II) and as an artist, the filmmaker resisted entrenched power.
In his landmark trilogy The Human Condition (Ningen no joken, 1959-1961), he raises questions about his country’s responsibility for atrocities committed in China, and condemns both colonial oppression and the brutality imposed by Japanese officers on the common soldiers. Films such as The Thick-Walled Room (Kabe atsuki heya, 1953), Black River (Kuroi kawa, 1957), Harakiri (Seppuku, 1962), The Youth of Japan (Nihon no seishun, 1968), Inn of Evil (Inochi bō no furō, 1971) and the documentary The Tokyo Trial (Tōkyō Saiban, 1983) deal critically with oppressive structures in a variety of contexts and at various moments in Japanese history.
This is also manifested in the period film Samurai Rebellion (Jōi-uchi: Hairyō-tsuma shimatsu, 1967), which reflects the filmmaker’s anti-authoritarian position with great originality. The script – adapted from a novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi – was written by Shinobu Hashimoto, the scriptwriter of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai, 1954), as well as Kobayashi’s own Harakiri. The film, set at a provincial court in 1727, tells the story of a loyal samurai who turns into a rebel. It depicts the Japanese society of the past, ruled by the warrior caste, and challenges its rigid code system based on total obedience.
Isaburo (Toshirō Mifune) is the retainer of a daimyō (a feudal lord), whom he opposes in order to protect the love and happiness of his son and daughter-in-law. His lord has ordered a marriage between Isaburo’s son Yogoro (Gō Katō) and one of his former mistresses. Unexpectedly, the young people fall in love and live happily with their small infant.
When the lord claims the woman back, Isaburo and Yogoro refuse to let Lady Ichi (Yōko Tsukasa) go. Isaburo’s insubordination reveals the cruelty of the oppressive regime he and his family become victims of. Having defied their ruler’s will, Isaburo and his son are required to commit ritual suicide (seppuku). When they refuse to obey the order, they are forced into a fight against a superior number of samurai, during which Yogoro dies.
His father decides to leave for Edo, the capital city, to present his case to the Tokugawa shogun. He is arrested at the province’s border by his best friend Tatewaki (Tatsuya Nakadai), whom he confronts in a duel. Despite their friendship, which is never put into question, both men accept the lethal duel as a quintessential part of the samurai’s code. They are servants (the very meaning of the term “samurai”), and duty to the lord comes first.
The murderous confrontation of the two friends shows the profound perversion of a system that obliges people who love and respect each other to kill one another. Its brutality is made obvious when a group of soldiers hidden in the high grass attack Isaburo. Fighting ferociously, he eliminates many of his opponents before being shot to death. The rebellious individual is the victim of an oppressive system which, using firearms against the sword, kills cowardly all those who try to oppose it.
Kobayashi contrasts this system with the bourgeois model of family and love between two individuals. The film’s domestic setting – most scenes in Samurai Rebellion take place in Isaburo’s house – highlights the conflict between authority and human feelings, which has been at the core of the Japanese period film since the 1920s. Family is a social microcosm allowing topics such as oppression and rebellion to be discussed. This is underlined by the divided household in which Isaburo’s wife and younger son, defending stubbornly the samurai codes of behaviour, strongly oppose their husband’s and father’s decision to protect the young couple.
Samurai Rebellion depicts a narrow-minded and authoritarian caste system by foregrounding the oppression of women. The Japanese title could be translated as: “An order of the Emperor (or a high-ranking person): the sad end of the bestowed wife”. Lady Ichi, transformed into an object by a society controlled by men (she is married to her lord against her will, sent away from his court as a damaged object, and required to return regardless of her personal wishes), never acts like a conventional victim. From the very beginning, she rejects the traditionally passive role of women. She slaps the daimyō in the face because of his infidelity. Later, she refuses to leave her new family and – as the ultimate gesture of rebellion – prefers death to a life at court.
Not unlike Harakiri, Samurai Rebellion transcends the conventions of the period film (jidai-geki) through its subtle interplay between form and content. The wide screen transmogrifies the domestic environment. The human figure appears as a mere figurine in the vast barren landscape and the sparsely furnished interiors. The individual, alone in the emptiness, seems to be the insignificant player on a stage on which power relationships and existential meaning are played out. The expressive lighting creates moments of bleakness, supporting the dramatic potential of individual rebellion against an unjust and inhumane system.
Space becomes metaphorical, reflecting social constraints. The linearity and sobriety of Japanese architecture, in which Ishi’s fate, and later the survival of the Isaburo’s family, are negotiated, are transformed into a symbol of confinement and sterility. Depth-focus shots reveal the harmony inherent in the symmetrical compositions and, at the same moment, unmask it as a mere fake. Underneath the apparent cleanliness and order lurk corruption and violence.
The very aesthetics are transformed into a socio-cultural signifier. It is this same space in which Isaburo evolves from an obedient servant to a self-confident fighter for justice.
Moreover, the man who had aged prematurely in a loveless environment, in which he had learned to suppress all his emotions, is deeply affected by the love of his son and Lady Ishi. Their love brings him to life again. Visual strategies are used to highlight this transformation. The crossed bamboo rods at the openings of Isaburo’s house, prepared for the battle, challenge the symmetrical concept.
The protagonist crosses both visible and invisible boundaries of the rigid samurai code when he leaves the stone-paved path in the courtyard of his house while endorsing his full support to Ishi. The footprints of his zori in the carefully-raked sand are a strong reminder of the importance of his decision. Stepping on the sand and destroying the harmony of the architectural arrangement is tantamount to sacrilege.
The recourse to the jidai-geki allows the film to explore the consistent emphasis on social control, put in place during the Tokugawa shogunate, in present-day Japan. The traditional aesthetics, conveying social criticism and moral reflections, are expressions of the strong dynamic between past and present, between history and contemporary issues.
The Human Condition depicts a dark portrayal of the Japanese militarist tradition; Samurai Rebellion targets this very tradition and its historical roots. The film re-examines the feudal heritage’s impact on the contemporary Japanese mind and on internalised codes of unquestioned obedience and self-sacrifice. Still valid, they explain the diminished sense of self among the Japanese, and point to the authoritarian structures in a network of social obligations.
The ultimate means of oppression occurs at the end of the film, when the protagonists are erased from the official records, not unlike the ronin Hanshirō in Harakiri. However, there is a glimpse of hope, because Isaburo’s final fight has been witnessed by his granddaughter’s wet-nurse. The film suggests that this woman, who saves the baby, might spread the story of love and rebellion.
Despite his pessimistic worldview, Kobayashi believes in the necessity of individual rebellion, and communicates his love for life in Isaburo’s moments of joy. Having crossed the boundaries of obedience, he has left the way of the warrior (bushidō, the way of life of the samurai) to become a true human being.