Shadowplay Swordplay

Back in December, I wrote very briefly about the opening scene of Masaki Kobayashi’s SAMURAI REBELLION, which I’d sneaked a peak at.

The Edge



The Wicker Man

Swing High, Swing Low

The Field

Well, rather belatedly, we finally watched the whole thing.

Fiona: “He’s one of my favourite filmmakers.”

Me: “You’ve seen TWO of his films. And five minutes of this one.”

Fiona: “Yeah.”

I knew just what she meant. Fiona is a huge fan of KWAIDAN (which should really be kaidan — Kobayashi’s films have suffered considerable retitling in the west). I admire it enormously — it’s as beautiful a film as was ever shot and designed — but I don’t find it too dramatically compelling or scary. But I was utterly wowed by SEPPUKU (which Criterion have decided to call HARA KIRI), an excoriating attack on the samurai ethos, and what feels like an incredibly bold film to have come from a film culture like Japan’s. Reading up on how the young Kobayashi did his best to resist his nation’s plunge into militarism in WWII deepened my respect and understanding for him. He’s somebody whose life story really feeds into and illuminates his work.

SAMURAI REBELLION (Jôi-uchi: Hairyô tsuma shimatsu — I don’t know what that means but I doubt it’s been translated literally, and the IMDb lists several alternative English titles) is a Kobayashi from 1967 that confirms the man’s mission: to tell the stories history has omitted to record. In this and SEPPUKU, Kobayashi makes a point of telling us that his characters will be not only defeated but erased from the record. We will inherit the myth of the honourable samurai code simply because all other stories have been bloodily suppressed.

Face / Off

This movie’s ending isn’t quite such a spectacular downer as the earlier film’s, which in a way makes it seem a lesser work. But neither film is actually depressing, despite the bleakness of their message and the violence of their action. Kobayashi’s style is hard, beautiful and incisive, using strikingly modern sharp push-in movements on his characters, Langian cutting to illustrate the cause-and-effect unfolding of the plot, and sometimes wild flourishes like theatrical lighting changes, freeze-frames and jump-cuts. Conversations between sitting or kneeling characters on the floor, an essential feature of Japanese period drama, have unique edge and ZING in Kobayashi’s work, as he holds his edits back until they really count. The intensity and grace of the technique prevents the film from becoming depressing, in the same way Shakespeare’s poetry prevents his tragedies from ever acquiring a deadening gloom (unless Peter Brook is on hand to steamroller them into submission).

The plots of these Samurai tragedies are genuinely Shakespearian, it seems to me. They also relate to the classic western. Unlike any modern action movie, both films build to an inevitable outburst of violent conflict, but tend to avoid decorating the path with action set-pieces. You have to wait for that promised samurai rebellion. While it’s hard to envisage a pacifist action film, what Kobayashi does with his stories almost amounts to that: as he slowly builds the sense of injustice, tension rises to the point where violence comes to seem essential, the only human response to the oppression on view. And at the same time, the violence harms only the underlings and the innocents: in the long term, it achieves nothing, and is destined not even to be remembered.

to the hilt

With Toshiro Mifune AND Tetsuyo Nakadai, the film has plenty of iconic honourable bloodshed stature, but at the same time undercuts its genre superbly, making it simultaneously a samurai film for those who don’t like samurai films, and one for those who do.


Surprisingly, script collaborator Shinobu Hashimoto also worked with Kurosawa on projects such as THE SEVEN SAMURAI which, though they include some knocking of the samurai myth, ultimately reinforce it.


There doesn’t seem to be any more Kobayashi available in the west for us to groove to. Criterion’s imprint of his epic three-parter THE HUMAN CONDITION is out of print and retails for exhorbitant prices second-hand. If anybody wants to burn me a copy I will love them madly.

6 Responses to “Shadowplay Swordplay”

  1. You’ve convinced me. I really enjoy Kwaidan, though I agree with you that it’s rarely scary, but I’ve not seen any of his other films.

    Incidentally, I assume that Kwaidan was given that title in the West because that’s what Lafcadio Hearn’s book of Japanese ghost stories–which, for such a thing, is relatively well known, both here and in Japan–is titled. It may have been a mistaken transliteration, but, having stood for more than a century, it was applied to the film.

  2. What’s you address? I’ll send you a burn.

  3. DE — No sooner had i posted this than I run into mark Cousins, and it turns out that The Human Condition is one of the first DVDs he ever bought. So that seems to be covered. Any other Kobayashi (besides the three mentioned above0 would be gratefully received, but if not we can talk disc-burning later re some other filmmaker.

    Levi — yes, the rogue “w” must have come in earlier then. I’m basing all this on the comments of a Japanese friend, and maybe there’s something else he doesn’t know, but it seems likely some early translator distorted the pronunciation a touch, then spelled it that way.
    Alas, the only Hearn I’ve read was an account of drinking blood in a slaughterhouse, and an amazing translation of Theophile Gautier’s La Morte Amoreuse. I must get some of his “j-horror” someday. He must be one of very few people who have been able to enter Japanese culture from outside and contribute to it as if he were a native.

  4. Bibliodyssey today featured a great array of images from an early hand-drawn edition of Lafcadio’ Hearn’s Kwaidan. It’s worth checking out.

    If WordPress gets mad and won’t let me embed the link, you should be able to find it through Google.

  5. Those are AWESOME. OK, now I gotta do a post on Kwaidan so I can reference them.

  6. As far as I know, Kobayashi only made four jidai geki / samurai period films, and I have loved all of the ones I have seen (I still have not seen Kwaidain). The film listed below is available from, and is well worth checking out.

    INN OF EVIL (Inochi Bonifuro) 1971

    This is another masterpiece from filmmaker KOBAYASHI Masaki, noted director of HARA KIRI, KWAIDAN, and SAMURAI REBELLION. The Japanese title is actually translated as “We give our lives for nothing”, and is the true heart and soul of this story. Based on a novel by YAMAMOTO Shugoro, who also wrote the books upon which SANJURO, KILL, and AFTER THE RAIN, were based, it tells the tale of a group of thieves and murderers who find it within themselves to sacrifice their lives with no hope of personal gain. NAKADAI Tatsuya stars as Sada, an expert with knives, whose mysterious past comes to light as he leads a group of fugitives in their last-ditch battle to save their home, a dilapidated inn, which does not welcome strangers in its doors. KATSU Shintaro plays against type in a pivotal role as one of the only outsiders ever allowed to drink at the inn. Tension and suspense lead up to a conclusion like no other. A magnificent motion picture, and a true work of art.

    Directed by: KOBAYASHI Masaki
    Starring: NAKADAI Tatsuya, SATO Kei, SAKAI Wakako, NAKAMURA Ganemon, KATSU Shintaro

    Price: $19.95

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