“Push and you step back. Push, you step back further, but at the last moment, you change from a defense to offense. You never attack. You wait until your opponent tires and quits.”
Kobayashi is widely known for his impeccable way of screening dramas in a variety of settings and time periods. The crime drama of Black River, the family drama of The Human Condition Trilogy, his horror drama Kwaidan, and his chanbara dramas, Harakiri and this film. In all of these films, Kobayashi evokes an inescapable sense of atmosphere. The flow of his films suffers at times because of this, but patience is always rewarded, and this film is no different. It is a film weighing the importance of compromise; should one preserve one’s integrity at all costs even beyond the security of one’s own family?
The film takes place during the Edo period when Japan enjoyed a relative peace. Isaburo is a master swordsman who’s only equal is his friend, Takewaki. He is regarded by everyone (including his wife) as having a skill that is no longer in fashion. He is not well-versed in diplomacy or economics, but subscribes to a dying discipline. His is an arranged marriage to a cruel, domineering woman. So when his son, Yogoro, is given the “choice” to marry Lord Matsudaira’s former mistress (Ichi), he fears for his son’s future happiness. He attempts to turn down the offer but is literally threatened that if he refuses his life will become forfeit. Yogoro accepts in his place and Isaburo honours his son’s wishes. Everyone is kind and accepting of Ichi except Isaburo’s wife. She regards Ichi as disrespectful and immature and makes verbal jabs at her at every opportunity. Isaburo soon retires as head of the household and Yogoro takes his place. He turns the household duties over to Ichi saying, “You needn’t hold back for the old woman.” Soon after, we learn of Ichi’s history with the lord. She was, of course, ordered to be the lord’s mistress, but she could never bring herself to love the lord for he is a selfish, power-hungry man. “I shuddered. I felt as if a worm were crawling over me,” she confesses to Yogoro. She bore him a son, Kikuchiyo. When the lord acquires another mistress, Lady Tama, Ichi becomes so disgusted at the pretension of Tama and the lord that she assaults them both and is banished from the castle. Ichi soon bears Yogoro a daughter named Tomi.
It’s not long after this that Lord Matsudaira’s son dies of illness. Ichi is ordered to return to the castle. Yogoro and Isaburo refuse but soon she is abducted and taken back to the castle anyway. Yogoro and Isaburo write up a petition demanding her return. Lord Matsudaira sends orders for them to both commit suicide. Isaburo says they will if three heads are brought to them: Lord Matsudaira, Chamberlain Yanase, and Steward Takahashi, the men responsible for Ichi’s kidnapping. And so, we have this immensely intriguing setup of evolving characters that have not only been given specific and separate contexts to motivate their actions but have also been hurled into a suddenly life-threatening conflict of ideologies. Battling tradition is a common theme in many films but here it is an impossible situation that can only end in tragedy. The film’s central theme is arranged marriage; how it can work and how it doesn’t. Indeed, the original title of the film is commonly translated as “Rebellion: Receive the Wife.”
The ending is an explosive battle reminiscent of the ultra-violent climax of Okamoto’s Sword of Doom. “Resort to violence and you’ll have mountains of dead and wounded men,” Takewaki warns the shogunate, and indeed his prediction comes true. Mifune and all of the actors in the film are wonderful and Toru Takemitsu’s soundtrack conveys the mood of every scene with minimalist intensity. One of the great samurai films for those with the patience for it. It is a film with a defiantly (rebellious?) deliberate pace that constructs the characters so well that the effect of the tragic ending (and how else could it end?) is multiplied immensely. Kobayashi does leave us with a hint of hope however, showing once again that he is the master of Japanese drama with a keen eye for three-dimensional characters and an intriguing directing style.