Saturday, November 10, 2012


Hideo Gosha's first theatrical film was an adaptation of a popular Japanese TV series. The Shochiku studio promoted it as a revolutionary film while noting that it was star Testuro Tamba's first movie as a producer. 1964 was a big year for Tamba, as the future Tiger Tanaka would make his first English-language film, The 7th Dawn (coming soon to this blog). While the studio stressed these milestones, Three Outlaw Samurai is in line with a number of contemporary films that used the chambara genre to criticize historical injustices and highlight class conflicts. There seemed to be a cinematic consensus that feudal Japan was a cruel land where aristocrats ground peasants into the earth, while samurai and ronin chose sides according to their personalities.

Shiba (Tamba) stumbles into a zone of class warfare where some exceptionally bold peasants have kidnapped the daughter of a local lord in hopes of extracting concessions from him. His exactions have left them hungry, and Shiba takes an initially dispassionate interest in the kidnappers, advising them on how to defend their ground and finally intervening when the lord's men try to rescue the girl. The lord recruits a motley lot to escalate the conflict, including two more ronin. One, the deceptively lazy looking Sakura (Isamu Nagato), quickly switches sides to support Shiba, though not before killing a peasant who attacked him for no apparent reason. The third, the self-styled "freeloader" Kikyo (Mikijiro Hira), sticks with the lord until he sees proof of the man's dishonor.


Following Sakura's defection, the lord's men capture a peasant girl and torture her in order to force the hostage's release. When the peasants relent, the girl kills herself by biting her own tongue off rather than see her people give up their own advantage. But when the peasants threaten to kill the lord's daughter for revenge, Shiba defuses the situation by turning her and himself over to the authorities, vowing to accept any punishment the lord wishes so long as the peasants are spared. Kikyo witnesses Shiba's torture, and learns that the lord has ordered the peasant ringleaders slaughtered anyway. He helps Shiba escape, then finally joins forces with Shiba and Sakura to fight a small army determined to prevent the peasants from presenting a petition to a nobleman denouncing the lord.

For a debut film Gosha's is pretty slick, but the director had honed his craft on the TV version. Three Outlaw Samurai is stylishly efficient, packing plenty of plot and subplot in little more than 90 minutes.  Amid all the action Gosha manages to fit in a major romantic storyline for Sakura, who falls for a peasant widow before either realizes that the attacker the ronin had killed earlier was her husband. While the film as a whole is understandably Tamba's show, Isamu Nagato just about steals it as the samurai who comes nearest to a spaghetti-western "ugly" type, but is also the most conscientious and soulful of the three.

(l-r) Mikijiro Hara, Testuro Tamba, Isamu Nagato;
(Below) You cannot petition the lord with prayer!

Sixties samurai films anticipate spaghetti westerns in their class consciousness, most resembling the spaghettis set in Mexico, where the oppression of the poor by the rich could be shown in starkest if not cartoonish detail. Gosha steps back from embracing the peasantry, however. He emphasizes how exceptional the few were who dared kidnap the lord's daughter by portraying the rest as abject cowards in the denouement, when Shiba, having risked his life for the peasants' right to submit their petition, can't convince any of them to actually give it to the nobleman. Gosha's peasants are less the salt of the earth than an opposite extreme of wretched impotence from the nobility's extreme of oppressive ruthlessness. The samurai seem to be the only ones capable of decisive, honorable action, and for every one who proves a good guy there's probably another who tramples the helpless under foot. Looking at it from the broadest perspective, Three Outlaw Samurai is no more political than any Robin Hood or William Tell movie, since just about everyone agrees that feudalism was bad and made people bad. As an action movie, it can be enjoyed quite easily without looking for any politics in it. Gosha's greatest works in the genre were yet to come, of course -- Goyokin is his masterpiece of the films I've seen -- but Three Outlaw Samurai is an impressive start to his cinematic career.

1 comment:

venoms5 said...

I'm slowly getting around to picking up as many of the Chambara films that are legitimately available as I can, including this one. I've only ever seen it in bits and pieces on IFC Channel. This was back when they were prone to showing any number of Zatoichi movies.