Three Outlaw Samurai (Sanbiki no samurai, Japan, 1964), Hideo Gosha’s debut for the big screen, is an origin-story offshoot of an eponymous Japanese television series that was first aired in 1963, with Gosha directing the first episodes. The black-and-white film prefigures the sophisticated mixture of social criticism and elegant camera work that marks Gosha’s later work, including masterpieces such as Goyokin (1969) and Hitokiri (1969).
Tetsuro Tamba plays the ronin (masterless samurai) Sakon Shiba, who becomes entangled in the violent conflict between peasants and a corrupt magistrate. Three of the peasants have kidnapped Aya (Miyuki Kuwano), the magistrate’s daughter, in order to exert pressure on her father to reconsider his oppressive tax policy. Shiba, at first a mere observer seeking shelter in the mill where Aya is kept hostage, takes the side of the peasants. When he is offered a small cup of millet porridge, he suddenly realizes that this means there is no food left for the peasants. Despite being famished himself, he is moved by their gesture and shares the millet with his hosts.
Shiba is the epitome of the samurai – defending the weak and fighting injustice. He is very reminiscent of Kanbei, played by Takashi Shimura in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai, 1954). In this film, Kanbei represents the ideal samurai – a man who takes individual responsibility and follows the Buddhist virtue of altruism. Shiba is however an extreme version of Kanbei as he is even prepared to submit to the punishment for the kidnapping instead of the peasants: “The peasants risked their lives. I cannot do less.“ Moreover, for him as a samurai, being beaten a hundred times with a club just like an ordinary criminal goes beyond physical pain and represents great humiliation.
Two other characters join Shiba’s fight for the cause of the peasants. Sakura (Isamu Nagato) is a poor ronin like Shiba who is travelling round Japan to perfect his swordfighting skills. He accepts a job working for the magistrate, but when he learns that he is expected to kill peasants, he changes his mind, being himself of peasant stock. The third ronin who teams up with Shiba is Kikiyo (Mikijiro Hira), the magistrate’s yojimbo (bodyguard), who lives an idle but boring life at his employer’s residence. Becoming more and more disgusted by the magistrate’s brutal and treacherous behaviour, he decides to free Shiba from prison.
The three main characters are opposites and at the same time complementary. Shiba is the champion of justice and a man of honour. Kikiyo is a cynical hedonist who mocks Shiba’s trust in the samurai code of honour. Sakura is the richest character emotionally. Having killed one of the peasants in an act of self-defence when the latter tried to help the three kidnappers, he is overcome by guilt, and his remorse deepens when he falls in love with the victim’s widow.
Like Akira Kurosawa in Yojimbo (1961) and its sequel Sanjuro (1962), Gosha depicts a profoundly corrupt world in which the rich – in this case the samurai at the top of the social hierarchy – exploit the poor. The peasants’ diet of millet, the rags they wear and the fact that they have to sell their wives and daughters to brothels in order to survive serves to reveal their poverty and despair. Shiba, wolfing down the millet porridge, realizes that his economic situation is not very different from that of the peasants even if he is still a samurai and therefore above them in the social hierarchy. Sakura and the group of ronin hired by the magistrate to liberate Aya and to kill her abductors reveal the fragile existence of these masterless samurai who are willing to kill for a small reward – and who are shown no mercy but killed themselves when they are no longer useful to those in power.
Most of the film’s action takes place in interiors – the mill, the magistrate’s residence, a brothel. The insistence on interior shots contributes to the film’s claustrophobic atmosphere, which is heightened byfrequent shots of characters filmed through the wooden lattice of windows. Fragmentation is another means to create feelings of closure and instability. In one sequence, Shiba’s upper body and leg exposed in the foreground hide a portion of the image. He and also other characters are frequently framed in medium close-ups in the foreground while the depth of field of the widescreen format is filled with a great variety of objects and human bodies moving in the background. Gosha creates complex spatial structures with numerous vertical beams dividing rooms and diverting the viewer’s gaze. In the magistrate’s house, a series of shots showing sliding doors also serve to obstruct the view. Visual closure and fragmentation are supported by the subtle lighting, human figures being fragmented by shadows. The dark spaces that the eye needs to fill reinforce just how much the characters are trapped in their social roles in an oppressive society. And sometimes they just capture the viewer’s attention by the disturbing interplay of bleakness and beauty.
Instead of giving deep psychological portraits, Gosha insists on themes and an elaborate mise en scène as a means to support his vision of a violent world. Three Outlaw Samurai follows the jidai geki developments of its time as shown in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, where Kurosawa and his star Toshiro Mifune revived in 1961 the nihilistic ronin, a figure explored in pre-war jidai geki, in films by Sadao Yamanaka, Mansaku Itami, Daisuke Ito and others. These filmmakers used the era of the samurai as a disguise to refer indirectly to social injustice in 1930s Japan. The humanism in the films of Yamanaka and Itami also resonates in Kurosawa’s work, and it and permeates Three Outlaw Samurai.
Not unlike Kurosawa’s yojimbo, the three main protagonists are superheroes and invincible swordfighters, able to kill any number of opponents. Shiba is a cool version of Kanbei whereas his antidote, the laid-back and cynical Kikiyo, is more like an update of the nihilist ronin pushed to extremes. His reluctance to commit himself to a good cause hints at Kyoshiro Nemuri, a popular character in a TV series aired for the first time in 1956. Sakura is a figure combining tragic and comic elements and recalls Mifune’s role in Seven Samurai as a peasant who pretends to be a samurai. The guilt-ridden former peasant Sakura shows his emotions more openly than Shiba or Kikiyo, whose attitudes are closer to the ideal of the samurai as a man in control of his emotions.
The first shots of the wandering ronin Shiba on a dusty road in the countryside, a stray dog crossing his path, are reminiscent of Yojimbo. And so is the film’s final sequence, in which Gosha presents a variation on the part of Yojimbo’s opening sequence in which the ronin – played by Mifune – throws a branch into the air to show him the path he should follow. In Three Outlaw Samurai, it is Aya’s hairpin that Shiba throws into the air in order to decide which road he and his two new friends take.
The way Gosha toys with conventions and stereotypes is a means to distance his film from the mass-produced jidai geki of the 1950s. Like Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi in Harakiri (Seppuku, 1962), Eiichi Kudo in 13 Assassins (Jusan-nin no shikaku, 1963) and Tadashi Imai in Bushido, Samurai Saga (Bushido zankoku monogatari, 1963), Gosha questions the bushido – the way of the warrior – offering an extremely violent portrait of society and a deeply critical approach both to jidai geki films and implicitly to society as a whole. Like his director colleagues, he targets the way the economy and crime, society and violence are intertwined. In Gosha’s film, evil is represented by the samurai in power, who are greedy and without honour, having perverted this cardinal virtue of their social class. Instead, they are willing to kill in order to cover up their crimes, like the samurai of the Ii-clan in Kobayashi’s Harakiri.
Shiba’s trust in the promise given by the magistrate – a samurai like Shiba himself – is betrayed. His fight for justice turns out to be in vain because of the peasants’ cowardice after the three kidnappers have been killed. Shiba and his friends are not triumphant but disenchanted heroes, thus sharing another trait with the characters played by Mifune in Yojimbo and Sanjuro. However, the film ends with a glimmer of hope – the three ronin continuing their journey together. Nevertheless, it is the special combination of austerity and extravagance, of elegant visual composition and the sudden explosion of violence that makes Three Outlaw Samurai a remarkable directorial debut.