Kobayashi’s Use of the Frame to Denote Restriction and Conflict in Samurai Rebellion

Kobayashi begins his 1967 film with a shot that tracks slowly against a rocky surface.  Throughout the opening credits, the camera cuts between several lengthy takes of a samurai compound, each time organizing the architecture of the building into frames that emphasize its geometric patterns.  In all of these shots, the viewer feels forcibly pinned to the surface of the screen, never given the breathing room of sweeping camera movement or of open frames of organic shapes.  With this opening sequence, Kobayashi establishes a sense of claustrophobia extends through the duration of the film.  As with nearly every other shot in the film, the cinematography works in tandem with the themes and relationships in the plot.  A family conflict finds its visual counterpart in an intentionally unbalanced framing of that family.  The oppressive nature of bushido manifests itself in closed frames that only open into a narrow doorway.  Indeed, in reviews of Samurai Rebellion, critics rarely fail to mention “Kobayashi’s ability to comment through composition, to mirror what he is showing by the way in which he shows it.”[1] Throughout Samurai Rebellion, Kobayashi utilizes the frame to bolster themes of restriction and rebellion and to provide visual representations for conflicts between characters.  In nearly every shot, the framing reflects a latent theme or conflict.

The thematic framing in Samurai Rebellion manifests itself most ostensibly in the tripartite structure of the film.  With the exception of two sequences of outdoor shots – one at the beginning of the film and one at the end – most of the action in Samurai Rebellion takes place indoors, pinned against geometric forms framed symmetrically by an unmoving camera.  Even in the outdoor shots, the camera frequently cuts out the sky and pins the upper edge of the frame against the top of a building or a compound wall.  These claustrophobic frames trap Isaburo within a path of little choice, with an inevitable conflict against the clan that kidnaps his daughter-in-law.  With the notable exception of the initial and final sequences set outside of the compound, Isaburo’s path is set in stone, both by the narrative and by the walls the frame pins him against.

As oppressive as these themes seem to be, the film begins with a sequence notably outside the confines of the compound. The claustrophobic architecture prevalent through most of the film is totally absent here.  In shots far removed from the stone walls and rigid architecture of the credits sequence, Kobayashi captures organic shapes in the rolling hills and swaying trees, frequently set against a backdrop of open sky or outdoor terrain that extends into the horizon.  The dialogue reflects the same sense of openness as suggested by the frame.  Isaburo says that he is searching for a bride for his son.  Little does he suspect that this matter will soon be decided for him.

Less than ten minutes into the film, as Isaburo converses with the messenger of the clan leader, we catch our last glimpse of the outside air in an open frame until the final sequence of the film. “Perhaps you want a grandchild?” the man suggests to Isaburo.  As he reveals his situation to this messenger, a conniving smile creeps across his face.  With Isaburo’s admission that desires a daughter-in-law, he has, in a sense, sealed his fate.  From this moment onward, he and his family become victims of the clan leader’s whims.  The messenger will relay this desire for a son-in-law to a clan leader who will force a son-in-law upon him.  As the conversation ends, the camera cuts to a high-angle shot of an entrance into the compound.  Isaburo enters the single entranceway seen in the shot, his path determined by the symmetrical frame and the single opening it has placed in the center.  Until his son has been killed, Isaburo’s path is now predetermined by the plot and by the geometrical forces of the camera’s frame.  With no other choice, Isaburo grudgingly accepts his predetermined path.

The viewer is then pinned by a virtually immobile camera against geometric shapes inside the compound. Not until the last fifteen minutes of the film will we see another frame opened to the sky or the outside of the compound.  During this middle portion in the film’s tripartite structure, Kobayashi gives us visual clues that not only denote the presence of restriction, but its particular quantity and qualities in a given scene or portion of the plot.  For instance, in his first meeting with the steward of the clan leader, Isaburo and the steward face each other, sitting on opposite sides of the frame.  Between the two, a doorway opens to the outside of the building, letting in light and creating an open space between the two. “I’ll return for an answer in a few days,” says the steward, “But Sasahara, it is our lord’s decision, so bear that in mind.”  He has thus offered Isaburo an irrefutable proposal, a command ironically woven into the façade of a question.  Though his decision is already made, the open doorway provides the illusion of a choice.  In a second meeting with the steward, when he returns for an answer, the conversation takes on a much more bitter tone.  Isaburo’s attempt at refusal meets with the anger and misunderstanding of the steward.  The composition of this latter scene is identical to the earlier one, save one detail: the doorway to the outside is now closed.  As if the illusion of choice has now been replaced by an irrefutable command, all pathways of escape seem to be cut off for Isaburo.  Only when his son opens a door into the room does the frame once again crack open.  Yogoro’s decision to accept the marriage not only opens up a thematic doorway (i.e. the solution offered by his decision) but a visual doorway as well (the closed frame opens once again).  Even within the claustrophobic world of oppressive architecture and closed frames, Kobayashi provides visual cues for illusions of choice, one-way decisions in which the characters choose to follow orders and cannot disobey.

Much of the film looks like this: actors deliberately placed in a claustrophobic frame.

The architectural and compositional claustrophobia in Samurai Rebellion, while certainly utilized by Kobayashi, were also emblematic of many films in the postwar jidaigeki genre, as well.  According to Isolde Standish, “Gone are the flat, kabukiesque studio-built sets filmed in widescreen […]. In their place are the architectural structures – walls, courtyards, labyrinths of internal corridors and external alleyways – that trap the characters within their internecine battles. “[2] The cramped visual style of Kobayashi’s film thus reflects not only the restrictions placed on Isaburo, but a shift in the stylistic conventions of the jidaigeki genre, as well.  While it may not be entirely useful to read Samurai Rebellion as representative of this entire genre, its use of oppressive architecture and its themes of individuals trapped within internecine conflicts indeed mirror those cited by Standish.  The main characters, Isaburo, his son, and his daughter-in-law, all face an irrefutable and oppressive authority.  They must choose either to honor the traditional hierarchy or to rebelling in pursuit of humane ideals.  Kobayashi places our protagonists in direct conflict with forced ‘social restraint’ both in the visual elements of the film and in the narrative themes of oppression.  Throughout this battle, there is little question of which side the director is taking.  Kobayashi himself said, “all of my pictures … are concerned with resisting entrenched power.  I suppose I have always challenged authority.”[3]

Much of the force in Samurai Rebellion’s plot comes in the form of building tension, helplessness against that ‘entrenched power’ that cannot resolve itself until Isaburo finally rebels against the clan in the final portion of the film.  Much of this tension might be lost on a modern Western audience unfamiliar with the social forces that made this rebellion so unthinkable.  “Why not just leave the compound? Or resist the clan leader without so much suicide and killing?” one might ask.  Central to Kobayashi’s plot is the compelling force of the bushido code.  As a member of his clan, Isaburo must never disobey an order from his superior.  Though he first attempts to deny the leader’s marriage offer by calling it “too great an honor,” the steward gives him a puzzled look in return.  Implicit in the plot of the film is the undeniable nature of hierarchy.  “Because Bushido – which existed, all questions of ethics aside, on a sociological level to support a hierarchical feudal system – values loyalty in the extreme, it willingly recruits anti-animistic and anti-free will philosophies.”[4]  While the oppressive frame and threats of death provide enough reason behind these characters’ inability to disobey orders, the inhumane nature of bushido lurks behind the themes of the film.  Although the clan leader ostensibly seems to be the antagonist of the film, the incontrovertible hierarchy implicit in bushido too seems to form a sort of antagonist.  Isaburo not only rebels against his clan, fighting and killing those who stand in his way, in addition he rebels against bushido and the hierarchy it represents.

This resistance to bushido, forms another emblematic resonance with the post-war jidaigeki genre.  According to Standish, “In these films the ethic of bushido (the moral code of the samurai) is deconstructed as an outdated ideology of oppression in a society centered on material rather than humane principles.”[5]  Kobayashi utilizes this struggle with bushido to engage in a social commentary, exposing the perils of blind allegiance to authority.  Though he never tells us whether that authority takes the form of nationalism in 1960’s Japan, the feudal philosophy in Meiji era Japan, or of a more general individualism in the face of authority, Kobayashi nonetheless gives us a powerful portrayal of an individual rebelling against all odds.

Only in the last fifteen minutes of the film, after Ichi and Yogoro have been killed, does Isaburo again emerge into the open frame and the bright outdoors.  In this final portion of the tripartite structure of the film, he once again emerges into open frames that capture organic shapes and views of the sky.  Now that he has broken the bushido code, and placed himself in direct opposition with the traditional hierarchy of his clan, the frame symbolically opens up to the outside world.  Though he will soon be killed by the clan he has defied, the camera uses his reemergence into the open world to suggest a heroism in Isaburo’s actions.  Despite his imminent death, Kobayashi uses the bright sky and open frame to suggest that his struggle was not in vain. By declaring his son’s love of greater importance than the arbitrary loyalty toward a cruel lord, our hero has declared his allegiance to humanism above all else.  Symbolically, both Isaburo and the frame of the camera have declared humanism superior to blind nationalist-like allegiances.

The final portion of the film does not, however, reflect naïve idealism on the part of the auteur. There exists some sense of ambivalence in the closing sequence of the film. Isaburo has clearly made the right choice, as coded by the frame of the camera, but the frame is not as open as one might expect it to be.  In one shot of Isaburo facing his old friend at the gate of the compound, an open frame of a wide field meets a harsh line in the gate that Isaburo will never cross.  Even in shots of the skyline, Kobayashi frequently eclipses half of the otherwise open frame with a mountain obstructing our view.  There is no romanticism in Isaburo’s rebellion.  Though he stands alone, cutting through hordes of pursuers, he eventually dies, and the effectiveness of his rebellion is brought into question.  Though Isaburo has escaped the sense of cruel fate coded in the seeming inevitability of the plot and framing earlier in the film, he fails to bring his grandson to Edo and escape the attacks of his pursuing clansmen.  According to one review of the film, “if the hero cannot win (for Kobayashi is much too honest a director to let him), then he makes a grand display of his own immolation.”[6]  Isaburo indeed makes a grand display of his demise.  Though Kobayashi will not let him win against insurmountable odds, the audience will surely feel attached to his valiant cause.

In the final shot, the frame captures a vast view of the outdoors, halfway eclipsed by mountain.  The shot is an ambivalent one.  Though it depicts a vast reach of the outdoors, a mountain obscures the other half of the frame.  Our desire to finally see Edo, the coveted escape from oppressive hierarchy, is never satisfied.  Instead, we get an ambiguous shot that contains both a glimpse of freedom and an insurmountable obstacle keeping us away from it.  This same shot has appeared several times earlier in the film, previously shrouded in the dark shadow of the mountain.  Now that Isaburo has rebelled against the bushido, however, the open view of trees and mountains in the distance have been illuminated in the glow of the sunlight.  Though our hero has died, the camera suggests a sense of hope in his actions.  Loyalty has been defied for the sake of love, and perhaps Tomi will live to reenact a similar rebellion.  The success of Isaburo’s rebellion is still questionable, but its necessity has been encoded in the expansive frames that have broken free of the closeted compound.  Isaburo may have failed to escape the reins of authority, but Kobayashi certainly admires his attempt.

Bibliography:

Richie, Donald. “Samurai Rebellion: Kobayashi’s Rebellion.” Criterion Collection: 25

Oct. 2005 < http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1052>

Silver, Alain.  The Samurai Film. Woodstock: Woodstock, 2004.

Standish, Isolde.  A New History of Japanese Cinema: A Century of Narrative Film.

New York: Continuum, 2005.


[1] Richie, Donald “Samurai Rebellion: Kobayashi’s Rebellion”

[2] Standish, Isolde. A New History of Japanese Cinema: A Century of Narrative Film. (287-88)

[3] Richie

[4] Silver, Alain. The Samurai Film. (25)

[5] Standish (288)

[6] Richie

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About T Anderson

I am a graduate of Amherst College. I taught for a year in Harlem and now teach in Brooklyn.
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