Based on a television series of the same name, Three Outlaw Samurai, you suspect this may be a prequel; never having seen the early 60s series I could trust the Wikipedia entry telling me it is, but nevertheless it makes sense as essentially the film is the three protagonists forming their uneasy alliance – where you assume the TV series then starts. Yet it would be unfair to simply call the film an origin story.
Its premise is simple and immediately recognisable: three peasants have taken their corrupt magistrate’s daughter hostage in a bid to force him to petition his lord for food. Everyone is starving. Meanwhile, in need of a place to sleep, ronin, Shiba (Tetsuro Temba), comes upon the peasants and becomes embroiled in their desperate ploy.
At first Shiba is a wry observer, noting how the peasants in their distrust of him completely leave their hostage untended. The situation feels quite similar to the opening of Sanjuro, and you cannot help but feel that the film owes enormously to Yojimbo and Sanjuro, even if Three Outlaw Samurai never tries to ape either of these films (wisely so), also it is not a jidaigeki but a chanbara picture. Still, it hardly seems an accident that Sanjuro is generally considered to be the closest that Kurosawa ever came to making a chanbara picture as Three Outlaw Samurai pretty much sticks to the Sanjuro concept of the penniless ronin coming across a band of hopeless individuals and against his better judgement comes to aid them.
True, in Sanjuro Mifune’s ragged ronin comes to aid the loyal sons of the relatively powerful, and not the peasants represented in Three Outlaw Samurai, which also refuses the audience a nice happy ending, which Sanjuro certainly provides. In fact two of the most outstanding things about Three Outlaw Smaurai is how it seems as interested in politics as it is action, nor does it pull its punches when it comes to the denouement. So again, though you would think this is influenced by Kurosawa, Three Outlaw Samurai makes no attempt to be a low budget version of it – though the ending has a lovely circularity both in terms of the opening scene of Yojimbo, as well as an early moment in Three Outlaw Samurai. The parallels pile up and up and yet seem so unimportant. (Yet not.)
The tone of the film is set in the opening, as Shiba trudges across muddy tracks. The stark black and white emphasises the desolation that we tend to see throughout. The shrine where the peasants hole up seems flimsy to the point of being matchwood and only the magistrate’s home is polished. Even the brothel portrayed later in the film is not some fancified geisha establishment, but worn and patched to the point where you can imagine the building likely stinks of mildew and desperation. If this seems a strange entry point to describing the film it’s really not, as about halfway through I paused the film a moment as I realised I couldn’t remember any music beyond the opening credits and listened for any as I continued to watch and it seemed curiously absent. The lack of music and the starkly delineated photography I found gave the film an unusual semi-realism. I say semi-realism as after all Three Outlaw Samurai is an action film at heart, but the socio-political angle obviously really matters to the writers and the director, Hideo Gosha. Even when it comes to the ending of the film, the real emotional impact is not the action sequences as our heroes coalesce, it’s their relation to the peasants and their actions.
Ah, but what of our remaining samurai? Sakura (Isamu Nagato) is the lazy bumpkin romantic who (like an antithetical Mifune in Seven Samurai) comes from peasant stock and sympathises with their position. He’s also guilt wracked having unknowingly killed a peasant in self-defence. Kikyo (Mikijirō Hira) on the other hand wants the good life: women, wine and food – not to mention a roof that doesn’t leak over his head, but circumstance cause him to join forces with Shiba and Sakura.
Arguably most of the plot of the film feels like it could easily have come from what I imagine the TV series to have been: the corrupt magistrate who never keeps his word, women who change their minds while loving those they shouldn’t and a plot that follows tracks so many other stories have before, yet there is something remarkably fresh in Gosha’s film.
Like Sanjuro, where the main female characters maintain a strength that is not immediately obvious, Three Outlaw Samurai follows suit. Aya, the kidnapped daughter, isn’t some screaming child but, learns to understand both Shiba and the peasants. She grows where she could easily have been nothing more than some tedious trope. Oine, whose husband Sakura kills, is still capable of love; and geisha Oyasu recognises the importance of the peasants cause regardless of her own safety. It’s indicative of the film, in how it constantly and subtly wrong foots you. Expect Trope A, no, it uses Tope A and spins it gently so that what you expect happens and yet doesn’t and the film provides a deeply satisfying package because of it.
There’s a wonderful smoothness to the storytelling that means that Gosha's interest in politics always meshes with a sharply written narrative rather than overwrite it. Sakura’s killing of Oine’s husband as he desperately ventures out for food also ensures that the peasants holding Aya hostage have food to eat (though we know they have none left) and we've also witnessed Aya's disgust at the thought of millet porridge, showing just how far removed she is from the peasants who must endure it. Again, it all falls together into a superbly tight bundle, though occasionally there are edits to the film that suggest something important is missing. Quite why Kikyo finds himself forced to join Shiba and Sakura left me thinking I had missed something as I was pouring that last glass of wine? A few scenes do cut together oddly, perhaps to keep the film to a good ninety minutes.
Considering this was Gosha’s first film it’s hard not to be impressed. It’s a magnificently confident piece of work and the performances are first rate. Temba, as Shiba, is recognisable in that "bloody hell what have I seen him in before?" way. He has a little of the Mifune about him – to the point where I almost expected him to echo Mifune’s feline Sanjuro acting style – but feels entirely his own actor. Importantly, he has the capacity to hold a film together and command the screen. In support Nagato as Sakura is spot on for his part, as the charming but slightly foolish romantic, whereas Hira as Kikyo is similar to Tatsuya Nakadai in how his features seem graven onto him, ironic for one who likes the good life, Kikyo should arguably be more rotund like Sakura. The most notable other casting seems to be Kamatari Fujiwara as Jimbe, the elderly peasant, and you wonder if that was intentional bringing to mind his bickering farmer turned failed samurai in The Hidden Fortress, not to mention his multitudinous other roles for Kurosawa. Also he has one of those instantly recognisably faces that is also capable of a kind of pantomimic performance that is somehow never over the top yet deeply exaggerated.
The action sequences intriguingly are really few and far between but well-choreographed and again the final showdown isn’t just action for the sake of it but reinforces how these three outlaw samurai, who share little in common except being ronin, need – dammit feel almost destined - to come together, even though you never feel like they are friends. They are creatures of an uneasy alliance, each existing as their own person.
The print and soundtrack in this Criterion release is downright flawless but if there’s a problem with Three Outlaw Samurai it’s that it is a Criterion release and so my general issue with their pricing raises my hackles. Over. Priced. Unlike many Criterion releases it doesn’t have a ton of extras if that’s your bag to at least justify it, it’s just pricey. The only extra included, the original trailer, is at least fascinating: selling first time Gosha as a visionary genius and promising Three Outlaw Samurai will be a unique samurai film. In a sense it’s right. Three Outlaw Samurai somehow straddles chanbara and jidaigeki genres even if it falls more on the chanbara side, but you could argue the film makes the distinction superfluous. If I return to Sanjuro, Three Outlaw Samurai has more politics than Sanjuro but is never as beautiful (ah those scenes with the cherry blossom and the garden - delightful); the performances in Three Outlaw Samurai are excellent, even if no one quite matches Mifune’s glorious indolence vs fevered action in Sanjuro. Yet Three Outlaw Samurai offers something different and new, maybe something that TV offered: immediacy mixed with the ability to undermine, just as McGoohan’s The Prisoner did on UK TV later in the 60s. And all this is crystallised on celluloid.
This review was based on my second viewing, the first many months before and I found that Three Outlaw Samurai felt like one of those films that get better with each viewing. The moment I started to watch the film the second time I started to remember moments from it and each time looked forward to them because each one felt like a delicious undermining of expectation. As with most samurai films it’s hard not to compare with Kurosawa and though it will never have the verve of Throne of Blood, Three Outlaw Samurai deserves to stand against many of the master’s works, even if it is a curious black sheep cousin. But maybe Three Outlaw Samurai is all the better for it.