When we think about narratives woven around samurai, those noble, ornately armored dragoons from Japan’s feudal days of yore, we tend to think of them in terms of thematic frameworks. Honor, loyalty, devotion, and servitude; these are just a few of the primary colors with which jidaigeiki and chambara* films paint the samurai caste, in brushstrokes both broad (say, the Zatoichi series) and nuanced (Seven Samurai, Sansho the Bailiff), depending on where you look. Sometimes, samurai cinema builds on itself with layers, exploring the social and moral complexities inherent to the warrior’s life. At others, it contents itself by having a lone hero dispatch swaths of bad guys.
And occasionally, you have a case like Hideo Gosha’s Three Outlaw Samurai, which balances itself between both ends of the spectrum far better than many of its peers. Maybe that sounds like bragging. Maybe you haven’t heard of Hideo Gosha. That’s actually not a crime, per se; Gosha, unlike the Kurosawas, Mizoguchis, Kobayashis, and Inagakis of the world, never built up a ton of cultural cache for himself among Western critics. Partly that’s because Gosha’s contemporaries frequently overshadowed his own work – Kurosawa alone casts a rather large shadow – but, perhaps more importantly, his films didn’t get much promotional attention outside of his home. (Which, admittedly, might be a consequence of a life spent being overlooked in favor of more visible talents.)
Despite the lack of attention Gosha received in the West, and despite the criticisms and dismissals occasionally ladled upon him in Japan, he’s one of the country’s unsung cinematic heroes. Gosha got his start in television, working for the Fuji TV network in the late 50s and early 60s; it’s here that he came upon the idea to produce a crime drama boasting realistic portrayals of violence, a series which he ultimately shaped into – you guessed it – Three Outlaw Samurai, a tale of three ronin, masterless samurai, wandering the land dispensing justice for the common folk (or perhaps in spite of them). The show proved such a hit that Gosha was given the chance to adapt it into a feature length film, and thus, Three Outlaw Samura: The Movie** was born.
A shame that it took so much time for the film to make its way to a respectable home release in US markets; the film measures up well against all but the very best in chambara fare, bringing to bear all the hallmarks of great samurai films but in Gosha’s distinct, trademarked style. There is, of course, a degree to which Gosha’s movie owes a debt to Kurosawa’s filmography, particularly Seven Samurai, and even to the Spaghetti Westerns that were slowly gaining traction around the world during the early to mid 60’s; Three Outlaw Samurai is very much a product of the anti-heroes of the latter and the pristine swordplay of the former, but it’s also the kind of movie that betrays its creator’s proclivities despite its obvious influences.
Put another way, Three Outlaw Samurai is very much a Gosha film, something that can really only be said today in retrospect to his career in total. For however many TV shows Gosha produced before transitioning to film, Three Outlaw Samurai marks his cinematic debut; he gave himself a stylistic blueprint through television, but he refined that style through the movies. The result: a flair for well-choreographed fight scenes, assured editing, surprisingly lovely photography, and unexpected turns on the typical ideas that run through samurai film, all using the standard grammar of filmmaking as its foundation. It’s a work of utmost confidence.
Three Outlaw Samurai concerns itself with, well, three samurai with decidedly different relationships to the law, manifested in this case by a local magistrate; each man, through one avenue or another, is connected to this official. Shiba (Tetsuro Tamba, a frequent collaborator from Gosha’s TV days), first met walking down a country road, sympathizes with a band of starving peasants who have kidnapped and tied up the magistrate’s daughter, hoping to force a conversation with him about their plight. Kikyo (Mikijiro Hira), on the other hand, works for the very same magistrate, and when charged with aiding the magistrate’s men in retrieving the abducted woman, he expresses boredom at the idea of “wasting his skills” on the impoverished. Finally, there’s Sakura (Isamu Nagato), interred in one of the magistrate’s jails and given a chance at freedom in exchange for his services in dealing with the peasants.
Clearly, Shiba, Kikyo, and Sakura are on a collision course from the very start of the film, but Gosha refuses to play too closely to convention, and Three Outlaw Samurai may surprise you as a result. We might expect Shiba and Kikyo, opposites to one another on the surface, to end up mortal enemies, stuck at either end of the axis of honor; we may assume that the more roughshod Sakura, a screen descendant of Toshiro Mifune’s character in Seven Samurai, would find it impossible to co-exist between either of his more classically-postured associates. Yet each man, and for his own, personal reasons, finds a reason to band together against the magistrate in a cascade of mercurial betrayals and shifts in allegiance.
Three Outlaw Samurai brazenly defies the notions of loyalty that are so central to many chambara films. Here, no one is loyal to anyone but themselves, to their pride, to their sense of shame. That’s a cynical, myopic view to take – in the end, Shiba, Kikyo, and Sakura, are all loyal to each other, and to the peasants that they determine to protect and serve. But their better intentions don’t keep Gosha from identifying them as nothing more than stray dogs, a motif that comes up again and again in his later efforts, notably Sword of the Beast and Samurai Wolf. These aren’t men; they’re animals, a sharp change in tack from so many other chambara offerings, a brand of cinema that frequently lionizes its characters for their nobility and honor. Three Outlaw Samurai does something similar but wholly different: it celebrates its heroes because they lack in both.
*A simple rule of thumb: chambara films are also jidaigeiki films, but not all jidaigeiki films are chambara films.
**Not an actual subtitle for the film.