A lyrical, beautiful film on the abuse of authority, the title of Samurai Rebellion (1967) may lead the unsuspecting viewer to believe that they'll be watching a slashing, crashing, chock full o' swordplay action flick. But no. The mid-'60s brought a new perspective to j idai-geki ("period tales"), with directors using their films' settings in feudal Japan as a way to pointedly criticize the changes in their country's current political climate. Written by Hishimoto Shinobu and based on a novel by Takiguchi Yasuhiko, the story concerns an expert swordsman, Isaburo Sasahara (Toshirô Mifune) and his trusted colleague Tatewaki Asano (Tatsuya Nakadai). In a period of relative peace, their Lord Matsudaira (Tatsuo Matsumura) has given these expert duelists the dull job of checking over the inventory of swords by cutting down straw dummies and, basically, doing desk duty by reviewing reports, tasks for which they are mocked by their colleagues. Unlike other samurai, Isaburo is divided in his loyalties despite the belief that his work for his master should come before his family although he has a shrew for a wife, he is devoted to her, and he genuinely hopes for a better, happier future for his sons. When a proposal is floated that Isaburo's oldest son, Yogoro (Takeshi Kato) marry Lord Matsudaira's disgraced mistress (and mother of one of his children), Lady Ichi (Yôko Tsukasa), Isoburo is in something of a pickle Lady Ichi is a bad, bad choice for his son, but to refuse his master would be an act of defiance and a loss of honor. To save his father the decision, Yogoro accepts the deal but, surprisingly, finds himself in a happy marriage with a woman he genuinely cares for. So all is well
until Lord Matsudaira decides he wants his mistress back, and Isaburo is once again forced to choose between his master and his family. Director Masaki Kobayashi's film is an elegantly composed visual feast examining the strictly formalized, oppressive social structure of the time through meticulously framed shots down passages and through doorways, contrasting with vast, open exteriors that illustrate the yearning for freedom. Samurai Rebellion is a remarkably poignant commentary on the abuse of power and the helplessness of those who have no choice but to accede to their decisions, and it presents the tragic, lonely outcome of choosing conscience and humanity over service to authority. The Criterion Collection has done a very good job of restoring this black-and-white title with a new anamorphic transfer (2.35:1). It's certainly not their best effort while some sections are beautifully clean and sharp, scratches and noise still abound in some parts, and the picture is often quite jumpy and at times a little fuzzy. Still, the contrast is excellent, with rich, deep shadows and surprisingly good detail through most of the film, allowing the viewer to appreciate the beauty of Kobayashi's camerawork. The monaural audio, on a DD 1.0 track, is acceptable and clean, in Japanese with new English subtitles. On board is an excerpt from a 1993 interview with Kobayashi (3 min.) in which he discusses his first time working with Toshirô Mifune and the film's reception when it was released, as well as the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
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