Written by Eizaburo Shiba, Gin’ichi Kishimoto, Keiichi Abe, and Hideo Gosha, and directed by Hideo Gosha, “Three Outlaw Samurai” is a blistering Chanbara, or ‘sword-fighting‘, film that excels in its characterization of the three titular Samurai while keeping a tight and satisfying pace. The aspect of the film that struck me most while watching was how familiar the film felt. Not simply because the film relies on staples of the Samurai genre of cinema, it most certainly does, but rather the three Samurai themselves and their personalities. It reminded me most of the Western Epic, “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”. Now, both this film and Sergio Leone’s first entry in what would be come commonly known as ‘The Dollar Trilogy’ starring Clint Eastwood as The Man with No Name, were completed and released in 1964. “Fistful of Dollars” was a Western intrinsically tied to another Samurai film, “Yojimbo” which provided the foundation of what the dollar trilogy would become. So, is it unreasonable to suggest that Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, or someone involved with the production of “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” saw this film and decided to return to the well of Samurai film homage?
Granted, these two films are incredibly different in many ways. The runtime for the dollar trilogy capper was a lofty four hours long, whereas “Three Outlaw Samurai” is a compact hour and a half. Sergio Leone’s third outing with The Man with No Name was also stylized more as an ‘epic’ with vast distances traveled while this film’s consequences and geography are smaller in scope- though no less violent! The worlds of both films are indeed brutal, death surrounds all the major players of each film, the major difference here is that the Western keeps the three titular characters at odds with each other throughout the film while the Samurai movie has it’s characters eventually working together against their adversaries. There are shifting allegiances in both films, but the back and forth morality was a trait more fervent in the Western. The characterization of all six share some similarities between each and their counterpart. Shiba (Tetsurô Tanba), for example, is ‘The Good’ of this tale. We start the film with this ronin as he wanders into a constantly evolving hostage scenario at a mill just outside the town. He enters and sees that three village peasants have captured the local Magistrate’s daughter in order to force the local government’s hand in lowering the collective tax of eight surrounding villages. After several attempts at diplomacy with the Magistrate, the villagers felt they had no choice but to take drastic measures to feed their families and stay alive. Shiba plays the aloof ronin part well in the first act, when the government’s goons show up, he helps the farmers defend the mill and makes sure the Magistrate’s daughter eats as well. Cue the introduction of ‘The Bad’ Kikyô (Mikijirô Hira), a hired Samurai working for the Magistrate who enjoys the finer things in life. He takes a lot of motivation to eventually join the cause, but betrayal can be very persuasive. The last one to be introduced to the story, Sakura (Isamu Nagato), is our freewheeling and slightly rotund Samurai who is this film’s ‘The Ugly’. He begins in the Magistrate’s prison, but ends up switching sides to help the farmers when ordered to assist in slaughtering them at the Mill with their ronin guardian. Though admittedly, Sakura is a far more moral character than Tuco aka ‘The Ugly’.
“Three Outlaw Samurai” does a lot with it’s runtime, the storytelling economy is inspiring and compelling. There’s a lot to love here, the film’s action sequences are expertly crafted, thrilling to watch, and while it may not reinvent the wheel, the execution of it’s familiar elements paired with stylistic flourishs throughout the runtime make it a stellar example of the Samurai film genre. I highly encourage anyone that’s interested in Japanese cinema to give this one a watch. Revenge, loyalty, love and loss- this film has it all!
Final Score: 3 Samurai Outlaws