In a time of sustained peace, the powerful daimyo (feudal warlords) have become resigned to an existence of pointless exercises and petty bureaucracy in a determined effort to retain privilege and curry favors from Edo. In an attempt to stave off boredom, Lord Matsudaira’s (Tatsuo Matsumura) seasoned swordsman, Isaburo Sasahara (Toshirô Mifune) and his trusted colleague Tatewaki Asano (Tatsuya Nakadai), have been relegated to the task of evaluating swords by felling straw dummies for a report to the chamberlain and reviewing uneventful border records for the daimyo. On the afternoon preceding the Suwa Shrine Festival, steward Takahashi (Shigeru Kôyama) pays a visit to the Sasahara residence in order to propose – or more appropriately, coerce – an arranged marriage between Lord Matsudaira’s disfavored mistress, Lady Ichi (Yôko Tsukasa), and Isaburo’s oldest son, Yogoro (Takeshi Kato). Having given birth to Lord Matsudaira’s younger son, but reported to have physically attacked the daimyo in open court, the controversial Lady Ichi seems an unsuitable match for the reticent and unassuming Yogoro. However, to refuse Lord Matsudaira’s request would be deemed an act of defiance and threatens to sully the family name. Impulsively, Yogoro accepts the disagreeable proposition on behalf of his reluctant father, a decision that proves to be an unexpected blessing as the young couple settle into a life of mutual affection and respect. But soon, fortune would turn against the Sasahara family, as Lord Matsudaira demands Ichi’s return, and Isaburo is forced to choose between allegiance to his master and devotion to his beloved daughter-in-law.
Masaki Kobayashi presents a sublime and haunting examination of conformity, inhumanity, and abuse of power in Samurai Rebellion. Through highly formalized compositions and meticulous, rectilinear framing – usually shot against shoji screens and visually limiting passageways – Kobayashi reflects the rigid code of conduct, structured behavior, and suppression of individual will that define daily existence under the regional daimyo of the Tokugawa shogunate in a myopic and repressive effort to exert public control and eradicate dissent. The expansive, panoramic exterior shots contrasted against the clinically spare and isolating interior scenes that figuratively bound interpersonal dialogue further serve to reinforce a sense of entrapment and inescapability of social class: Takahashi’s intransigence in accepting Isaburo’s refusal of the daimyo’s offer; the matriarch, Suga’s (Michiko Otsuka) preemptive admonition of Ichi’s expected conduct at the end of the wedding ceremony; the formal presentation of Yogoro’s written request; Ichi’s intolerable inquisition at the courtyard. In the end, Yogoro’s selfless act of defiance towards the oppressive laws of the capricious daimyo forges a lonely and noble path through the dark and forbidding frontier of oppression – innately guided by the illumination of hope, conscience, love, and humanity.
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