Samurai Rebellion (上意討ち 拝領妻始末, Masaki Kobayashi, 1967)

samurai rebellion posterIf Masaki Kobayashi had one overriding concern throughout his relatively short career, it was the place of the individual with an oppressive society. Samurai Rebellion (上意討ち 拝領妻始末, Joi-uchi: Hairyo Tsuma Shimatsu), not quite the crashing chanbara action the title promises, returns to many of the same themes presented in Kobayashi’s earlier Harakiri in its tale of corrupt lords and a vassal who can no longer submit himself to their hypocritical demands. On the film’s original release, distributor Toho added a subtitle to the otherwise stark “Rebellion”, “Hairyo Tsuma Shimatsu”, which means something like “sad story of a bestowed wife” and was intended to help boost attendance among female filmgoers who might be put off by the overly male samurai overtones. The central conflict is that of the ageing samurai Isaburo (Toshiro Mifune), but Kobayashi saves his sympathy for a powerless woman, twice betrayed, and given no means by which to defend herself in a world which values female life cheaply and a woman’s feelings not at all.

Having the misfortune to live in a time of peace, expert swordsman Isaburo has only the one duty of testing out the lord’s new sword (which he will never draw) on a straw dummy. He and his friend Tatewaki (Tatsuya Nakadai) are of a piece – two men whose skills are wasted daily and who find themselves at odds with the often cruel and arbitrary samurai world, refusing to fight each other because the outcome would only cause pain to one or both of their families. Isaburo has two grownup sons and dreams of becoming a grandpa but needs to find a wife for his eldest, Yogoro (Go Kato). He wants to find a woman who is loyal, loving, and kind. As a young man Isaburo was “forced” into marriage and adopted into his wife’s family but has been miserable ever since as his wife, Suga (Michiko Otsuka), is a sharp tongued, unpleasant woman whose only redeeming features are her stoicism and dedication to propriety.

It is then not particularly good news when the local steward turns up one day and informs Isaburo that the lord is getting rid of his mistress and has decided to marry her off to Yogoro. News travels fast and though others may appear jealous of such an “honour”, Isaburo is quietly angry – not only is he being expected to take on “damaged goods” in a woman who’s already born a son to another man, but they won’t even tell him why she’s being sent away, and the one thing he wanted for his son was not to end up in the same miserable position as he did. Nevertheless when Isaburo repeatedly tries to decline the “kind offer”, he is prevented. A suggestion quickly becomes an order, and Yogoro consents to prevent further conflict.

Against the odds, Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa) is everything Isaburo had wanted in a daughter-in-law and even puts up with Suga’s constant unkindness with patience and humility. Eventually she and Yogoro fall deeply in love and have a baby daughter, Tomi, but when the lord’s oldest heir dies and Ichi’s son becomes the next in line, it’s thought inappropriate for her to remain the wife of a mere vassal. Summoned to the castle, Ichi is once again robbed of her child but also of her happiness.

Ichi’s tale truly is a sad one and emblematic of the fates and positions of upperclass women in the feudal world. Having had the misfortune to catch the lord’s eye, Ichi tries to decline when the steward shows up to take her to the castle, reminding him that she is already betrothed. Sure that her fiancé will protect her, Ichi says she’ll go if he agrees never thinking that he would. Betrayed in love, Ichi is sold to the castle to be raped by the elderly Daimyo who views her as little more than a baby making machine and faceless body to do with as he wishes. When she returns from a post-natal trip to the spa and discovers the lord has already taken a new mistress, her anger is not born of jealously but resentment and disgust. This other woman is proud of her “position” at the lord’s side when she should be raging as Ichi is now, at her powerlessness, at the male society which reduces her to an object traded between men, and at the rapacious assault upon her body by a man older than her father.

Isaburo is also raging, but at the cruel and heartless obsession with order and protocol which has defined his short, unhappy life. Having been a model vassal, Isaburo has lived a life hemmed in by these rules but can bear them no longer in their disregard for human feeling or simple integrity. Isaburo says no, and then refuses to budge. Having retired and surrendered control of the household to Yogoro, Isaburo leaves the decision to his son who refuses to surrender his wife and swears to protect her from being subjected to the same cruel treatment as before. The samurai order is not set up for hearing the word “no”, and the actions of Isaburo, Yogoro, and Ichi threaten to bring the entire system crashing down. Love is the dangerous, destabilising, manifestation of personal desire which the system is in place to crush.

Isaburo’s rebellion, as he later says, is not for himself, or for his son and daughter-in-law whose deep love for each other has reawakened the young man in him, but for all whose personal freedom has been constrained by those who misuse their power to foster fear and oppression. Having picked up his sword, Isaburo will not stand down until his voice is heard, fairly, under these same rules that the authority is so keen on enforcing. He does not want revenge, or even to destroy the system, he just wants it to respect him and his right to refuse requests he feels are unjust or improper. Like many of Kobayashi’s heroes, Isaburo’s fate will be an unhappy one but even so he is alive again at last as the fire of rebellion rekindles his youthful heart. Those caught within the system from the venal stewards and greedy vassals to the selfish lords suddenly terrified the Shogun will discover their mass misconduct are dead men walking, sublimating their better natures in favour of creating the facade of obedience and conformity whilst manipulating those same rules for their own ends, yet the central trio, meeting their ends with defiance, are finally free.


Available with English subtitles on R1 DVD from Criterion Collection.

Original trailer (English subtitles – poor quality)

Farewell Rabaul (さらばラバウル, Ishiro Honda, 1954)

Farewell Rabaul dvd coverReleased in 1954, Farewell Rabaul (さらばラバウル, Saraba Rabaul) was the last in a string of war films directed by Ishiro Honda for Toho immediately before the mega hit Godzilla redefined his career and turned him into a director of science fiction and special effects movies. Like the later tokusatsu classics, Honda worked alongside Eiji Tsuburaya to craft the film’s effects which are largely used to recreate the epic dogfights taking place over the island as the airmen and ground crew come to terms with the imminent arrival of American forces. Though he takes care to show the bravery and determination of the Japanese pilots, Honda’s attitudes to the war and the government who waged it are not so kind.

Late into the conflict, at an outpost in the Papa New Guinean city of Rabaul, ace pilot Captain Wakabayashi (Ryo Ikebe) leads a rapidly depleting squad of airmen trying to defend Japanese forces from American air attacks. Known as “Devil” Wakabayashi, he rules with an iron fist – taking issue with men who spend their time in local bars and pointedly refusing to send rescue craft for crashed pilots. Ruthless and cold as he seems, the war is starting to get to Wakabayashi and his resolve crumbles when faced with a gracious American POW and the attentions of a kindly nurse, Komatsu (Mariko Okada).

Honda keeps the action to a minimum, preferring to focus on the life within the military base. Though the effects on the local population are not much addressed, the opening scenes take place in a bar in which Papa New Guinean women dance to tribal drums while Japanese military personnel drink and watch. The waitresses are largely Japanese women dressed in kimono, though it seems the exoticism of local girl Kim (Akemi Negishi), dancing barefoot with flowers in her hair, is the main draw. Eventually Kim falls in love with a Japanese soldier and the two plan to flee but fate always gets in the way.

Wakabayashi, rechristened the “Devil” by Kim – a nickname which seems to stick, objects to his men blowing off steam in the bar for purely practical reasons – he needs them at top form for an upcoming mission and a hungover pilot could be a risk to the entire squad. Walking around looking sullen and refusing to explain himself, it’s no wonder Wakabayashi is unpopular with some of the men even if his skills are widely recognised. Asked to send a rescue squad for a lost pilot, Wakabayashi’s reply is a flat no with no further details offered. Only when a junior officer interjects during a briefing does he offer his reasoning – the crash site is in enemy territory and it’s too risky to send more men in to fetch one pilot who is probably already dead. His reasoning is sound and probably the correct command decision but the cutting coldness with which he delivers his judgement does little to assuage his reputation as a heartless misanthrope.

This is, however, not quite the case. When an extremely young member of his squad is shot down Wakabayashi shouts out to him, trying to advise the rookie on ways to control the aircraft but all to no avail. The pilot cannot bail out as Japanese pilots, particularly those flying the featherweight 0 fighters, are not equipped with parachutes. This is brought up again when a downed American pilot is brought in as a POW. The journalist attached to the unit is able to speak fluent English and interprets for Wakabayashi and the others as the American gives them an improbably frank analysis of Japanese airborne warfare. He tells them that the Americans were once afraid of the 0s and their high speed manoeuvring but have figured out their weaknesses. In the hands of a skilled pilot, the 0 is a powerful weapon but in unskilled hands it’s a liability – its lightweight form makes it easy pickings when the pilot does not know how to fly defensively. If it weren’t for this fighter they call “Devil” they’d be picking them off with ease. The lack of parachutes came as a surprise to the Americans. The 0s need to be as light as possible, but no one could believe that the Japanese government valued life so cheaply that they’d send a man up there with no way down. That’s why, the American says, they will win – no government so unwilling to look after its own could ever expect to.

The senselessness of it all eventually gets to Wakabayshi, even leading him to reverse his original stance and proceed into enemy territory to rescue a fallen comrade himself. He is, however, wounded, his plane damaged, and his friend doesn’t make it. Rabaul falls, and its hero falls with it in a turn which is both melancholy and defiant. Honda refuses to glorify the destruction but ends on a note of sadness, reprising the titular song sung by the women aboard a boat they hope will take them home but that, like everything else, remains so hopelessly uncertain.


Night Drum (夜の鼓, Tadashi Imai, 1958)

night-drumThe works of Chikamatsu Monzaemon continue to have a large influence over Japanese drama even if not as frequently and directly adapted as they were in the immediate post-war period. Famous for tales of tragic love suicides and romantic heroes who risk all in the service of deep emotion, Chikamatsu’s works perhaps found even greater resonance in the turbulent years in which individual freedom and adherence to tradition found themselves in even greater conflict than ever before. Tadashi Imai makes the most of Chikamatsu’s melancholy fatalism to take a sword to the samurai order itself with all of its arcane rules and the essential hypocrisy which underlines its cruelty.

Hikokuro Ogura (Rentaro Mikuni) has been in Edo for a year with the shogun and is now on his way home. Stopping at an inn, he has a low level argument with his brother-in-law who warns him the men are getting restless and need to blow off some steam – preferably with some sake. Hikokuro is in charge of the purse strings and knows all of this pageantry costs money the clan do not quite have – hence, he’s reluctant to fritter it away on alcohol no matter how much the men might resent him for it.

That’s not to say Hikokuro is a particularly officious person, he’s kind and cheerful by nature but also tired and eager to get home after such a long time away. His wife, Otane (Ineko Arima), is very happy to see him but something seems different about her and there’s a tension in the air among some of the other women. It seems, there are rumours about Otane and a travelling musician (Masayuki Mori) who frequented the house during the summer while Hikokuro was away. Rumours are often just that, especially in these petty circles of nobility, but female adultery is punishable by death and so is not something to be gossiped about idly.

Night Drum (夜の鼓, Yoru no Tsuzumi) begins with the ominous sound of the drum itself, beating out the inevitably tragic fate of all concerned with a melancholy fatality. The tale proceeds in a procedural fashion as the authorities become involved, hearing witness testimonies and trying to discover if there could be any truth at all in these unpleasant rumours. Matters are further complicated by the pecuniary difficulties the clan currently finds itself in – the elders are half hoping it is true because it would be a good excuse to expel the Ogura household and thereby save the money which goes on its upkeep. They are aware, however, that they’re talking about the life of a previously unblemished woman as well as the ruin of her extended family.

The life of a retainer is not as easy as it sounds and we’re constantly reminded of just how much money is necessary to keep up appearances. The clan authorities are dismayed when they hear of Otane earning money on the side through needlework though other retainers are quick to confess their wives also help out – they just can’t survive on such meagre stipends. Each lord is required to hire servants as befits their status but they aren’t given the money to do so. Hikokuro is also required to serve the shogun in Edo every other year for at least twelve months meaning Otane is left alone at home with almost nothing other than her needlework to do except wait patiently for her husband’s return.

Given these circumstances, it’s easy to understand how such pernicious rumours might begin. The sole basis of the evidence seems to rest on a tip off that Otane is thought to have been alone in a room with a man who is not her husband. That she may be put to death solely for the crime of sharing the same space as someone of the opposite sex seems extreme, but this is the feudal world where rules and propriety are all. The men can cavort with geishas to their heart’s content, but Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.

The action unfolds piecemeal as each of the various witnesses offers their testimony of events. Given the gravity of the situation, few are eager to recount their suspicions – especially the other women who fear the rumour may be true but are also unwilling to believe it. Hikokuro does not want to believe it either but faced with such convincing, if circumstantial, evidence doubt creeps into his mind and finds an anchor in Otane’s guilt ridden behaviour. Ironically, this entire situation developed only because of Otane’s attempts to avoid it – remaining at an inn rather than travelling with a man on the road only for one of her husband’s friends to attempt to rape and blackmail her. Having had far too much to drink in an attempt to steel her nerves and cover up the embarrassing assault, Otane finds herself at the mercy of man who should have known better than to take advantage of another man’s wife in such a moment of weakness.

One stupid mistake born of alcohol, loneliness, and a series of male betrayals is enough to bring down the social order all on its own. Rentaro Mikuni plays the part of the previously affable wounded spouse with an exceptional level of nuance as he accepts his part in his wife’s downfall thanks to the the circumstances of their lives which have kept them apart and left her at the mercy of untrustworthy lords. There is anger here, and shame, but there is still love too which only makes the inevitable outcome all the more painful for everyone concerned. Hikokuro plays the part he’s expected to play, but it pains him and you can’t wipe a slate clean with blood. Imai has his eyes firmly on the civilised society with all of its rigid yet often cruel and unfair rules for living. Shot with a kind of hypnotic dreaminess in which each of our unfortunate players is swept along by events they are powerless to influence, Night Drum beats out the death knell of those who allow their individual desires to overwhelm their “civilised” conformity but it does so with a rhythm that is filled with anger rather than sorrow, for those who are forced to leave half their lives unlived in maintenance of the very system which oppresses them.


 

Whistling in Kotan (コタンの口笛, Mikio Naruse, 1959)

vlcsnap-2016-08-03-02h37m50s119The Ainu have not been a frequent feature of Japanese filmmaking though they have made sporadic appearances. Adapted from a novel by Nobuo Ishimori, Whistling in Kotan (コタンの口笛, Kotan no Kuchibue, AKA Whistle in My Heart) provides ample material for the generally bleak Naruse who manages to mine its melodramatic set up for all of its heartrending tragedy. Rather than his usual female focus, Naruse tells the story of two resilient Ainu siblings facing not only social discrimination and mistreatment but also a series of personal misfortunes.

Masa and Yutaka are a teenage brother and sister living with their alcoholic father who has been unable to get things together since their mother passed away. They also have their grandmother and cousin, but otherwise they’re pretty much fending for themselves. At school, both children are shunned and picked on by some of their classmates solely for being Ainu. When one girl reports that her purse has gone missing, she immediately points to Masa and though another girl defends her, the obvious racial overtones continue to get to her. Similarly, Yutaka finds himself getting into trouble with one of the other boys after he beats him on a test. Yutaka pays a heavier price (at least physically) but both children are left wondering about their place in the world and what the future might hold for them.

Masa’s bright hope revolves around her art teacher who draws a picture of her at a local watering hole which he intends to enter into a competition. The teacher has his sights firmly set on a career as an artist in Tokyo but like everyone else’s dreams, it proves harder to realise than he might have hoped. Perpetually left behind, Masa’s dreams crumble too as do those of her friend who has her romantic hopes crushed firstly by her well meaning grandmother and then secondly by an unexpectedly racist action by someone who had always been seen as a friend. If all of these difficulties weren’t enough, fate is about to deal Masa and Yutaka a very cruel blow indeed which leaves them at the mercy of an evil uncle worthy of any Dickens novel.

Like much of Naruse’s work, the outlook is extremely bleak. The children face such a hopeless future that the most they can do is affect a kind of false cheerfulness to try and raise their spirits. Masa and Yutaka are both mistreated by the general population, leaving them with a lingering sense of anger and resentment towards those that seem incapable of treating them like regular human beings. Their cousin, Koji, has apparently come to the conclusion that he has to stand up against such mistreatment, however, the ultimate harm that is done to the pair is done by a member of their own family acting with total disregard their feelings and wellbeing. At this point Koji reconsiders and says he understands now that it isn’t about Ainu or Japanese, there are just awful people everywhere. An odd, if depressingly stoic, late in the game plea for empathy and tolerance, this ironically positive statement sits very well with Naruse’s general feelings on human nature.

Whistling in Kotan is not one of Naruse’s more subtle efforts. The tone is relentlessly bleak as the children experience ever more degrading treatment solely because of their ethnic group. Even their supposed ally eventually turns on them exposing the last lingering threads of prejudice among even those who portray themselves as forthright liberals. The message is one of forbearance and patience, that times have changed and will change more but that one has to grin and bear it while they do. Pragmatic as that is, it does let society of the hook when it comes to the refusal to acknowledge and deal with consistent prejudice. Filled with Naruse’s sense of despair, Whistling in Kotan is an uneven yet interesting exploration of this sensitive subject though perhaps undoes much of its good work with its ambiguous and often blunt approach to the material.