Samurai Rebellion ★★★★½

The role of women is often overlooked in samurai period pieces and they are usually slavishly devoted to their husbands and forced to suffer in silence. Not so in Masaki Kobayashi's Samurai Rebellion (1967). The Japanese title Jōi-uchi: Hairyō tsuma shimatsu roughly translates to Rebellion: Receive the Wife which is much more fitting considering the themes.

Samurai Rebellion takes place in 1725, in the Edo period, and revolves around Isaburo Sasahara (Toshiro Mifune), a vassal of the local daimyō (feudal lord). He is incredibly loyal to his lord and is one of the most skilled swordsmen in all the land. One day his eldest son Yogoro (Go Kato) is told that the daimyō wants him to marry his concubine Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa) who has displeased him. Ichi has born the daimyō a son, but her conduct in the court has made her unfit to live there. Yogoro initially refuses, but due to pressure from his family and thinly veiled threats from the lord he accepts. Yogoro and Ichi eventually fall in love and have a daughter together.

Much like in Kobayashi's previous film Harakiri (1962), there is a plot point that at first is perceived to be one way until a character reveals the truth behind what happened and it takes on a whole new meaning. Initially, we are told that Ichi was kicked out of the court for attacking one of the daimyō's concubines and slapping him in his face. Later on in the film Ichi reveals that she was forced to sleep with the much older feudal lord at the tender age of 19 because he had taken a sexual interest in her, which she bitterly whispers "was like dragging a silk kimono through the mud" after which she became pregnant. Upon delivering her son she goes to another district to recover and when she returns she discovers that the daimyō has taken another concubine in her absence. Overcome with rage she attacks them both and is exiled from the court as a result.

The men who lived under the thumb of feudal lords didn't have much agency but the women had even less so, often being used as bargaining chips by men trying to gain favor or promotions. Women were told to bear these tragedies in for the good of the clan, but Ichi does no such thing. No matter how much she is demeaned or threatened she does not budge one inch in her convictions. The daimyō's primary heir dies suddenly and that makes the son Ichi bore him the heir. He tries to break up her marriage and make her return to the court but she adamantly refuses. She is delicate in stature but her determination is rooted firmly. Kobayashi often centers her character in the frame and zooms in the camera close to her face to show her defiant expression. She is not alone in her rebellion, as her husband Yogoro and her father-in-law Isaburo decide to challenge the status-quo and fight for Ichi's rights as a human. She is not property, she is a person with with wants and needs.

Ichi subverts the usual depiction of women in samurai films, and though Samurai Rebellion doesn't end on a happy note, her strength in the face of injustice is inspiring. She, not the clan, is the true representation of Bushido.