Classic Japanese samurai film meets great Southern novel. Universal themes, some more obvious than others, beg comparison. To Kill a Mockingbird (novel) and Samurai Rebellion (1967).
A mockingbird sings in the tree one night and a little girl finds out that the ghosts and haints aren’t anything to fear after all, but that some real men are murderous monsters. The boogeyman of her childhood “comes out” and the Grey Ghost reveals himself to be her guardian angel. And this epiphany happens on Halloween night.
Abuse of power destroys the most innocent and vulnerable among us. To kill a mockingbird is to destroy something which is harmless and helpless, to pervert something righteous, or to abuse someone weaker who looks to you for protection.
Says Scout Finch’s father: “’As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it—whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.’ Atticus was speaking so quietly his last word crashed on our ears. I looked up, and his face was vehement.”
Finally we see vehemence from Atticus Finch, this unflappable, even-tempered man. His passion is a shock to his children but they cannot be surprised at his disgust. By now, they have seen enough of real life and real people in Maycomb to understand.
There are many mockingbirds. Crippled men of a less-favored class; young children; the daughter of the indolent bitter drunk, crushed under the weight at the bottom of the bottom of all classes.
In Kobayashi’s film Samurai Rebellion, the peerless Toshiro Mifune as Isaburo is a samurai during the Tokugawa dynasty. He is an even-tempered, pleasant man, a faithful vassal to his daimyo lord.
Twenty years of service and political imposition borne with a smile are not a stretch for Isaburo. His married life has been unpleasant. “If only she changed a bit all would be well. The world never seems to go right,” he says, but he guffaws good-naturedly.
Isaburo’s friend and fellow swordsman Tatewaki (the also matchless Tatsya Nakadai) suspects that, for all his appearance as a henpecked milquetoast, Isaburo is not a man to be pushed far. He knows Isaburo to be a man of longsuffering patience, but never a man to lose a fight. Tatewaki alone expects Isaburo’s unbreakable will; even Isaburo does not suspect it of himself. But this is speculation in this era of unbroken peace.
Theirs is a highly ordered society. Throughout the film, rigid architectural structures contain or proscribe the action of the characters. But as characters begin to defy their societal structure, they begin to transgress footpaths and even dismantle wall screens.
A concubine has been discarded by the daimyo for “losing her head” and striking him. Isaburo’s son Yogoro is commanded to marry her. Isaburo’s family reluctantly accepts the marriage as commanded. But demure Ichi surprises them all as she humbly cultivates a happy home for her new family.
Imposition turns to outrage. After two years of faithful marriage and the birth of a daughter, all the world insists that Ichi return to the unfaithful, unprincipled daimyo who had thrown her away. She is expected to exchange her respectable marriage for mistresshood and to abandon her legitmate child. Then Ichi is kidnapped to be returned to the lord and Yagoro is commanded to ask permission to send her back.
Power abused by the powerful. Power discovered by the weak in the face of evil. Isaburo, Ichi, and Yagoro take a stand upon the only solid ground in their world, their own righteous integrity.
“Ichi” means “one.” Ichi’s unwavering virtue inspires the sublime quality of her marriage to Yogoro. An ember of righteous outrage is fanned in Isaburo. The testimony of Yagoro and Ichi’s lovingly faithful marriage speaks volumes to his heart and strengthens his undiscovered steel will. He tells Ichi: “You’re worth ruining our family for.”
Each one, in his own time, experiences a personal realization that his or her stand for principle will be a fight to the death. It is a shocking epiphany to Yagoro in this time of peace. And in this time of peace, Isaburo’s reputation as the best swordsman in the clan has been all but forgotten.
In both stories, good people have tasks thrust upon them which are doomed to failure, and they know it before they begin to fight. They nearly defy fate but in the end fail. “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do,” says Atticus.
Atticus loses the case and his client dies. Finally, he does not recognize the real danger and fails to protect his children.
Isaburo and his son persist though their rebellion is hopeless. His final goal to expose the clan’s tyranny teeters on the edge of oblivion. The clan intends to bury the matter with the bodies of their challengers. Their causes are taken up by the invisible, the unseen hand which rescues righteous causes and succeeds.
A song in the tree of presence, of triumph. A mockingbird will soon destroy the murderer. It is the invisible, Boo Radley, who saves the children’s lives and restores real justice.
Like the mockingbird in the tree, all mockingbirds sing of their presence in the world: Dill’s dreamy tales woven for the children to play-act, Mayella Ewell’s row of beautiful geraniums in the trash dump, Tom Robinson’s selfless acts of compassion, Arthur Radley’s secret treasure cache in the hole of a tree. But like the bird song we tune out, these signs of existence are overlooked and invisible.
In both stories, the deaths of the murderers are hidden from the world. Scout’s murderer fails to accomplish his will; her invisible protector intervenes but the Invisible which sets things right does not call attention to itself. Even his noble act remains hidden to the world.
In the end, the arrogant tyranny of the clan will not be hidden. The invisible, the forgotten wet-nurse, who has secretly followed Isaburo, picks up the baby, clasps her affectionately and heads to the capital to fulfill the goal of Isaburo.
She will tell the girl of her mother and father’s self-sacrifice to justice and love, and her grandfather’s last command: to be a woman just like her mother, and to marry a man like her father.
Years later, Scout will tell the story.