I saw this last night on TCM, which, BTW, is a rare treasure in this medium called the "idiot box". Isn't it remarkable that this movie is 53 years old, and it still sparkles? What an accomplishment! It had the ingredients of a truly great film - complex characters that are developed fully and efficiently, great story-telling with attention to details, and good acting - a little stylized, but keep in mind that that impression might be due partially to Westerners unfamiliarity with Japanese culture, and partially to how the definition of "good acting" has evolved.
I love the film's nobility and moral rectitude. Those were the days when (and we were in a culture where) "doing the right thing" was the expected norm. It was seen in Moritoh's loyalty at the price of - at least it seems at the time - expediency, which was preceded by Kesa's unflinching sense of duty and willingness to lay down her own life. This is the beauty of Kesa's "soul" that Moritoh found out all-too-late he failed to see, which manifested itself as bookends in the plot, but is in fact the moral center of the movie. Such ideals are no longer frequently or fully embraced these days. Look at how we glorify criminals in shows like The Sopranos and Thief. I also liked how the plot falls together: Kesa's readiness to sacrifice herself at the outset of the story made her self-immolation at the end of the film ring true. The little details: remember the talk of chestnuts when Moritoh first saw Kesa with her aunt? We saw later on those very chestnuts hanging on the swaying trees during Moritoh's unfortunate night time visit. When Wataru and Kesa took what turned out to be their last walk in the garden under a full moon, it was all peace and serenity. The very same setting is transformed sinister and ominous just moments later, with the moon now hidden by clouds, as Moritoh slowly emerges out of the darkness in the background - a truly masterful and memorable scene in the history of cinema.
The theme of "folly" pervades the movie: we see a lot of it just from one character, Lord Kiyamori - and he's a top dog and a leader! His son had to advise him to act quickly to quash the uprising when we first see him. He then failed to reward Kesa, who is every bit as deserving as Moritoh of recognition. Even if you chalk that failure up to be culturally driven, we have his Jephthah-like stupidity and arrogance in giving Moritoh pretty much carte-blanche in his wish for a reward. What's more, we have his incessant and insensitive teasing - instrumental in precipitating the tragedy, in that it made the proud Moritoh all the more determined to have Kesa. Was Wataru cowardly, foolish, or both, when he "threw" the race? Lest you missed it, there's the cruel irony of Moritoh's comment after his brother's treachery resulted in his execution, "My brother was a foolish man". Well you proved to be no Solomon, Moritoh.
I thought it was a little frustrating to watch Kesa's helplessness when Moritoh blackmailed her. Surely there's another way out, woman! But I suppose that's part of the tragic theme: all the characters had strengths as well as tragic flaws. At the risk of second-guessing the director of a great movie, I felt that he could have kept the identity of the person in bed a secret until the moment of truth, but I'm sure I need to remind myself that this is not meant to be a thriller. I'd like to watch this movie again, maybe along with a movie it reminds me of: Kurosawa's Ran.