Hideo Gosha's Three Outlaw Samurai could easily be dismissed as a simple exercise in genre, but to do so would be to fail to see just how potent well-executed genre material can be. Released in 1964, it has as much in common with the work of Sergio Leone as it does with Akira Kurosawa. Though, given that the trio here predates Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly by a couple of years, one could go a bit nutty trying to figure out who influenced whom.
Tetsuro Tamba (Kwaidan, Blackmail Is My Life) stars as Sakon Shiba, a wandering swordsman who ends up in a situation he didn't plan on. He finds a fancy hairpin in the grass, which leads him to enter a nearby shack. There he finds three peasants holding a young girl (Miyuki Kuwano) hostage. She is the daughter of the local magistrate, and they have kidnapped her to try to bargain for better living conditions. Shiba is amused by the idea. He is pretty sure the peasants are in for a terrible wake-up call. He cynically settles in to observe the fun.
Only, when the man comes for his daughter, Shiba's sense of fair play kicks in, and he stands up for the locals. With this first rescue attempt having failed, and with the magistrate's boss due to arrive in town in a matter of days, the situation is about to turn humiliating for the official. He puts a local samurai, Kikyo (Mikijiro Hira, Sword of the Beast), in charge of the operation, a job that the laconic warrior takes halfheartedly. He is only in the man's employ to take advantage of his wealth, and what happens to anyone else doesn't matter much. He gathers a handful of ronin from the jail to take out to the shack and kill Shiba. Among them is a vagabond samurai named Sakura (Isamu Nagato). Like Shiba, he starts off amused by all the goings on; it's only when he hears the true story that he switches sides and joins the cause of the lower classes. His only sticking point is he accidentally killed one of the farmers who was trying to sneak the men food. Out of guilt, he starts looking after the dead man's wife (Toshie Kimura), and they end up falling in love.
What is supposed to be a simple rescue mission grows increasingly complicated as Three Outlaw Samurai progresses. Shiba makes a deal with the magistrate to save the kidnappers' lives, but when the scoundrel reneges, the crusade is renewed. Shiba is definitely meant to be the traditional, stand-up swordsman. His punishment at the hands of the bad guy, and his subsequent recuperation, has particular echoes of how Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name would be beaten within an inch of his life, only to hole up in a cave and let his body heal. If this were a Kurosawa movie, Shiba would be played by Toshiro Mifune. He's the crafty schemer who can't let a bad deed go unpunished. Tamba lacks Mifune's charisma, but then, most actors do. Even so, he's a solid hero, speaking with authority and more than able to hold his own in combat.
Actually, Sakura could have been a Mifune role, as well. He is a more mannered version of Mifune's character in Seven Samurai [review]--gruff, hairy, physical. Nagato brings levity to the part, and he is most impressive when faced with tough choices. On the flipside, Hira's portrayal of Kiko vacillates between villainy and nobility. He is eventually compelled to join the others in their efforts, though reluctantly so. All the characters in Three Outlaw Samurai are faced with a decision: go with the flow regardless of who is hurt, or draw a line in the sand and protect those who need it. For Shiba, Sakura, and Kikyo, choosing to go against the powers that be makes them outlaws, but it also makes them heroes.
Three Outlaw Samurai was Hideo Gosha's first directorial feature, and the beginning of a long career. He co-wrote the script with two other writers, including Eizaburo Shiba, who he would work with again on Sword of the Beast. The film was shot by Tadashi Sakai, who would only end up behind the camera for three more movies, two of which were directed by Gosha. Despite this crew being fairly unseasoned, Three Outlaw Samurai is an accomplished effort. The sword battles have the right balance of clear choreography and chaos, and Gosha juggles the narrative's many elements without losing focus. The ending is particularly satisfying for its cynical take on human nature, but it also features technical flourishes that add a surprising kick to the finish. In particular, when Shiba loses his cool and goes hunting for the magistrate, Gosha, Sakai, and editor Kazuo Ota get him there quickly by employing quick cuts and zooms. It's shown from his point of view, and the pacing matches his angry stride.
The last scene of Three Outlaw Samurai is a perfect closing of the chapter. Gosha loops the story back to the beginning, with Shiba surrendering to the agent of chance that started this detour. Had he wanted, Gosha could have easily spun what happened next into a series of films. It's the samurai equivalent of the cowboys wandering off into the sunset. You just know that whatever town they find down the road, there's also going to be trouble there, and if they don't do something about it, no one else will.
This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.