Three Outlaw Samurai Review
A spin off feature to the television series of the same name, Three Outlaw Samurai was not only a great debut for director Hideo Gosha, but still ranks alongside his arguably better known films such as Sword of the Beast, Goyokin and The Wolves. The themes of honour and sacrifice that would so often crop up in the two genres he was most associated with, chanbara (sword fighting films, a subcategory of jidaigeki – period films – akin to Western swashbucklers) and ninkyo eiga (chivalry films, generally crime dramas depicting the yakuza), are abundant in this early template.
A wandering ronin (a samurai without a master), Sakon Shiba (Tetsuo Tamba - devilishly unforgettable in Masaki Kobayashi's Hara-kiri but perhaps more recognisable to many as Tiger Tanaka from You Only Live Twice), wanders into a situation where the stakes are high and the players, at least on one side, are totally ill prepared. Three villagers have kidnapped the daughter of the local magistrate to force his hand into negotiation; the harvest has been poor and the farmers are starving. Shiba is almost led to the abandoned mill where the young lady is being forcibly held by fate, a hairpin that will become a recurring object piques his interest as it lays in the dirt, ornately juxtaposed with environment.
Shiba, like many depictions of ronin, carries himself with the air of the samurai classes still, his clothes may betray the hard times he find himself having fallen on, but his mannerisms are still as assuredly confident and based upon a code. Yet he makes no judgement on the kidnapping, preferring to watch from afar until the scenario has played out to a degree. We are to meet three characters that will be central to the film, but the early scenes within the mill introduce us to the fourth, and artistically most important, pillar of the film, the inventive cinematography. All areas of the frame appear painstakingly composed in an overtly intricate manner, the scope format used to full effect. The eye is drawn into the shots by subtle focus and careful placement of the mill's architecture. As the villagers talk to the party sent by the magistrate outside, the camera keeps an element of Shiba in the shot, his hands slowly unfolding and refolding his fan.
With this being an origin story to an already established trio, the worry would likely have been a possible lack of danger. You know the central figures must survive, but like a Bond story the drama comes not in the palpable life-or-death scenarios but the characters' reactions to them. A time frame is established, the peasants are forcing the issue as the Clan's Lord will arrive in 10 days, and they know the magistrate will want the situation dealt with by then or they will appeal directly to the Lord himself. Shiba is the primary focus, finding himself soon allied to the peasants' cause, but the other strands that bring the trio together are just as well conceived.
Einosuke Kikyo, a samurai in the employ of the magistrate, is shown to be bored and unimpressed by the idea he would sully his blade with the blood of lowly farmers. He walks with a lackadaisical stride, his sword hung over his shoulder by a binding. He has the air of a gunslinger waiting for an opponent of suitable worth, almost tempting to be cut down with his lack of visible preparedness for battle. It's clear his recruitment will be the last piece to fall into place and he keeps the viewers and Shiba waiting. In the meantime he is dispatched by his employer, along with several prisoners including the third of the soon-to-be triumvirate, Kyojuro Sakura, to the mill to deal with matters, in short kill everyone and bring back the girl.
If Kikyo is to represent the cold mercenary nature of following orders for money, and Shiba is the core manifestation of the samurai ethic of an overriding code of honour, then Sakura is the embodiment of simple human emotion. He is driven at times by his own simplicity, his introduction shows him sleeping in his cell, refusing to go out as he wants to remain incarcerated so he can continue napping. Yet fate takes a hand, and a chance encounter with a villager on his way to send food to the kidnappers leads Sakura on a journey all of his own, full of guilt and remorse.
Once the magistrate decides to get crafty and use a kidnapping of his own to further enhance his hand, the plot starts to properly twist and turn. The simple battle lines of an encampment of peasants in a mill is lost in the shifting sands of a narrative weaving crosses and double-crosses, unsuspected allies and enemies. Each of the three deal with the complexities in their own way, Shiba believes in the word of a samurai, Sakura follows his own emotional impulses and Kikyo, almost an outside observer who cynically knows the genre, can see through the magistrates game, knowing there will only likely be one conclusion.
The final reel is sublime, with the clan's best swordsman sent prior to the Lord's arrival, he takes on the duty of eradicating this shameful situation. By this time the trio have been brought together by the strands of fate and honour and will fight side-by-side against this most formidable foe and his men. Sakura doesn't get on as much of the action as the other pair, he's drawn by other matters but finds he cannot leave, even if it were to be for happiness, until he has atoned for an error. He still joins the fray, waving his spear with aplomb, but not before we've been treated to Shiba and Kikyo making their stand in the mill.
It's a real Butch and Sundance atmosphere, they cut down the men who impetuously break through the doors, before exchanging a knowing look and a smirk, branding the now slain interlopers fools. They work in tandem, and finally charge out of the mill, taking the fight to their enemy. It's pure chanbara at its best, and the inevitable fight with the master swordsman is a fitting crescendo. You could dissect it as a film about class, purpose and an ethical code; the themes of stray dogs (you could practically make a drinking game out of it – take a shot every time the term is used, you hear or see one and you'll likely die of alcohol poisoning) and pride even within poverty, are laced throughout, but this type of film lives and dies by its characterisations and Three Outlaw Samurai has not just one, but a trio of charismatic, emblematic and downright perfect archetypes. Watch it, and you may just find yourself asking who needs a whopping seven samurai, when three's the magic number.