September 13, 2012
Three Outlaw Samurai – Japan, 1964
Like many of the best samurai films, Hideo Gosha’s Three Outlaw Samurai depicts the heroic nature of a smaller number of samurai, in particular, ones without masters, and like other films, it portrays samurai with masters as both heartless and inhumane. It is the image of the noble samurai – the “true” samurai, if you will – that has given him an almost mythical quality. The formula for this kind of samurai film calls for the good samurai to start off cold and unconcerned and then join the fight after hearing about the sad plights of marginalized people whose lives are in great danger. In many ways, Three Outlaw Samurai does not deviate from this formula. What it does with it, however, is something of a revelation.
In the film’s opening moments, a wandering samurai named Sakon Shiba (Tetsuro Tanba) notices a hair pin and signs of a struggle near a mill in the Japanese countryside. Upon entering the mill, he is greeted with the alarming sight of a young woman, gagged and bound to a post, being held hostage by three rather nervous individuals armed with swords. The samurai’s immediate concern is naturally for the young woman, and for a moment, it looks as if there will be a deadly three-on-one tussle. Yet as is often the case with films of this type, looks can be deceiving.
At the end of the scene, the samurai sits on an upper level giving the three men below him indirect instructions on military strategy. It’s a fascinating turn of events, for it alters the viewers’ perception of right and wrong and somewhat justifies the desperate, unlawful act of the three men. The men, we learn, are extremely poor and incredibly hungry, the result of both a rather unsuccessful harvest and the cruel neglect of the town’s magistrate. The men’s prisoner is the magistrate’s daughter, whom they hope to use to get the magistrate to concede to a list of very reasonable demands. They are naïve, to say the least, but at least they now have a powerful ally.
Director Gosha, along with writers Keiichi Abe and Eizaburo Shiba, could easily have made the film be about the standoff that ensues, yet Gosha, here making his directorial debut, has something grander in mind. The kidnapping storyline is resolved surprisingly quickly and in a rather startling way, one which reinforces the decency and morality of Sakon Shiba, and as it moves away from this storyline, we begin to see the effect that Shiba is having on those around him. Most notable of those whose view of the world he alters is Aya (Miyuki Kuwano), the very prisoner he did not save in the opening scene. This is not an easy transformation, for she just happens to be the magistrate’s daughter.
The film introduces a few other samurai, principally among them the kind, slightly bumbling Kyujuro Sakura (Isamu Nagato) and the colder, more opportunistic Einosuke Kikyo (Mikijiro Hira). The first, like Sakon Shiba, is a wanderer. The latter begins the film as Sakon Shiba’s adversary, yet refuses to take part in the initial raid on the mill, proclaiming it not his job to kill peasants. Just how he remains on the magistrate’s payroll is anyone’s guess.
There’s never any doubt that the three samurai will eventually join forces. However, just how they do so proves to be quite a thrilling and fascinating ride, one punctuated by an accidental killing, a rather tragic sacrifice, and some amazing battle scenes. Through it all, Sakon Shiba remains the film’s moral center. According to IMDB, Tetsuro Tanba made more than 300 films. Given his performance in Three Outlaw Samurai and 1962’s Harakiri, it’s easy to see why he would be in such demand for so long. Director Hideo Gosha made just twenty-four films before his death in 1992 at the age of 63. His work on Three Outlaw Samurai is the kind that careers are built on, and I look forward to seeing more of his films.
That said, not everything about the film works as well as it should. Some of the changes the characters undergo occur too quickly, and there is an intriguing subplot involving one character’s quest for revenge that is given a rather unsatisfactory resolution. However, the film’s heart is always in the right place, and therefore, it is easily to overlook its minor flaws.
The film continues the tradition of having a small number of fighters take one a force much greater than their own. However, I think I understand this aspect of samurai films now. There seem to be three kinds of samurai in movies. First, there are the heroes, decent men blessed with incredible athletic ability and amazing hand-eye coordination. Then there are their counterparts, highly-gifted men who hire themselves as assassins and thugs. Finally, there’s everyone else – average swordsmen who know their skills don’t match those of the heroes or the truly sinister. These are the characters who shake with fear and stay on the periphery as their colleagues are picked off one by one. It’s as if they are secretly hoping they won’t be needed. Perhaps they are too nervous to be effective. Those with real skill hang back calmly, observing our heroes in battle and making mental notes about possible weaknesses. Then when all of their foot soldiers have been felled, they spring off their horses and stare menacingly at our heroes. It’s their way of telling the audience, “Prepare to see something incredible.” Fortunately, this is exactly what viewers of Three Outlaw Samurai will do. (on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion Collection)
*Three Outlaw Samurai is in Japanese with English subtitles.