Three Outlaw Samurai (Sanbiki no samurai)
Japan (1964) Dir. Hideo Gosha
For many, Samurai are seen as mighty warriors, demons with the sword usually found under the employ of a powerful warlord or dignitary. But there are also ronin, wandering samurai with no master to control them, roaming from town to town looking for a place to lay their heads. However, they still have a code of honour to adhere to.
A ronin named Sakon Shiba (Tetsuro Tamba) wanders into a barn to sleep for the night and finds a woman Aya (Miyuki Kuwano) tied to a post. A group of peasants appear to explain that Aya is the daughter of the local magistrate (Hisashi Igawa) who refuses to listen to their problems, so they have kidnapped Aya to force him into talking with them. Shiba decides to side with the peasants and act as their muscle if trouble starts.
Meanwhile, the magistrate learns of Aya’s whereabouts and sends a group of jailed ronin to bring Aya back. But when they arrive and learn the real reason she was taken, one of them, Kyojuro Sakura (Isamu Nagato), a former farmer, also sides with the peasants, forcing the magistrate to take desperate measures. Shiba tries to broker peace samurai to samurai, but the magistrate breaks his word, fuelling further unrest.
In his debut, Hideo Gosha sets out his stall as a director unafraid to show the darker side of humanity in his films and push boundaries with the on-screen depictions. During a period when chambara films largely toed the line in terms of the violence, keeping the fights brief and bloodless, Gosha didn’t stand on such ceremony; even if the bloodletting here is tame by modern standards, it was daring for 1964.
Having made his name in TV with the popular show Three Outlaw Samurai, this adjunct at least keeps Gosha in familiar territory but can still be viewed as a standalone piece. A reflection of working in the TV medium is found in how the story is rather basic, and indeed begins almost as soon as the opening credits end, just like in a TV show where the plot is established immediately.
With no vested interest in their plight, Shiba only sides with the peasants out of principle against the tyranny of the magistrate. The architect behind Aya’s kidnapping is Jinbei (Kamatari Fujiwara), who has also drafted a petition that has many signatures to deliver to the magistrate, which has been rejected. Holding Aya captive is a desperate act but that is exactly what the peasants are.
Despite his apparent neutrality, Shiba is quick to point out what Jinbei is doing wrong, giving him pointers in how to strengthen his stance and in handling Aya, proving successful in showing the magistrate they are serious. Sakura joining the revolt sets the rescue plan back, and whilst his act of solidarity seems noble enough, he is carrying a secret that will not only ruffle some feathers but also hamper his love life.
The third titular samurai works for the magistrate, Einosuke Kikyo (Mikijiro Hira), a vain man with a taste for the high life and little interest in actually killing. At first, he shows no affiliation to either side, letting the other samurai get their arses handed to them but as the dispute gets dirtier, Kikyo gradually uses his sway to give Shiba advance notice of the magistrate’s plans.
Reading the story like this makes it sound equally at home as a war time spy thriller or even a western, yet Gosha makes it feel a nature fit within this samurai setting by subtly riffing on these elements into his film. The key principle that drives this story however, which is resolutely Japanese, is the aforementioned Samurai Code which the magistrate wilfully reneges on to keep his seat of power. This is the catalyst for Kikyo and Sakura crossing the picket line to join the peasants’ cause, but naturally, it comes at a price.
Gosha may have started quickly but he lets things grow, and whilst he doesn’t end on an explosive crescendo, emotionally we are driven to the edge of the cliff, as the trait of loyalty, respect and corruption manifest themselves in many, often surprising, ways. Fights and bouts of violence are scattered throughout the film by way of punctuating each stage of the dispute; more visceral than other chambara films of the era, blunt and unflinching they serve a narrative purpose as opposed to being gratuitous.
One interesting paradox is the treatment and depiction of the women. They may not be afforded the same level of depth as the male characters but they are not simpering damsels in distress either. Aya develops into a stronger open-minded person, whilst the other women prove their moxie, sacrificing themselves for their men, yet they are sadly subject to much violence too, and aside from Aya, are mostly prostitutes.
Should Toshiro Mifune have given up playing samurai, Tetsuro Tamba would have made a fine replacement, sharing the same ruggedness and steely presence, but with a subtle ability to emote. The rest of the cast bring substance to roles that could easily have been lazy caricatures, and as the other two samurai, Isamu Nagato and Mikijiro Hira bounce off Tamba for a well-rounded central trio to get behind.
Echoes of Gosha’s TV experience can occasionally be found in the camerawork and some of the external scenes, as if Gosha took a while to feel comfortable with a wider canvas to paint on, yet adds something distinct to the presentation. The sword fights aren’t as controlled as in other classic chambara, opting for the less balletic, more intense approach we’ve come to know in modern cinema.
Three Outlaw Samurai is a bold, vivid, and intelligently written debut, introducing us to a filmmaker with a punk attitude long before punk was even a thing. This flawless HD transfer from Criterion simply enhances the film’s edginess and austere period aesthetic, making it feel as vital as it was in 1964.