Three Outlaw Samurai (1964)
Directed by Hideo Gosha

Three Outlaw Samurai
Sanbiki no samurai
Starring Tetsuro Tamba (Shiba), Mikijiro Hira (Kikyo), Isamu Nagato (Sakura), Miyuki Kuwano (Aya), Toshie Kimura (Ine), Kamatari Fujiwara (Jimbei), Tatsuya Ishiguro (Matsushita)
Screenplay by Keiichi Abe, Hideo Gosha and Eizaburo Shiba

Shochiku, 95 minutes
B&W, 2.35:1 scope
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion

Hideo Gosha's directoral debut is a rousing amalgamation of elements from Yojimbo and Seven Samurai served up with a fresh dash of attitude and style. Three Outlaw Samurai was based on a television series where Gosha first established himself. Little information is available about this elusive TV show, which would be warmly welcomed on English-subtitled DVDs, and looks to have been sort of a chambara version of The A-Team, with our ronin trio roaming from town to town, helping downtrodden people in need overcome oppression each week. It appears that the movie is not a direct extension of the television series continuity because here we see the three ronin meet for the first time.

The titular protagonists could be more accurately described as three outlaw ronin, a group of misfits who find themselves entangled in a conflict between peasants and a corrupt magistrate. The entertaining plot is propelled by the shifting alliances between them and other characters, as each has to face questions of what's best for them versus the greater good.

Wandering ronin Shiba (Tetsuro Tamba) happens upon a group of peasants who have kidnapped a young woman of noble birth. At first Shiba (and the audience) assumes that this is a bunch of lowlife criminals and the girl needs to be rescued, but the situation is not so foul as that. Because local magistrate Matsushita has turned a blind eye to the peasants' repeated appeals for relief under his oppressive rule, they've abducted his daughter as a foolhardy last resort to get his attention. needing a place to stay and feeling sympathetic, Shiba decides to join their futile cause.

When Matsushita sends send some goons out to take care of the kidnappers, his egotistical yojimbo named Kikyo is reluctant to come because fighting farmers is beneath him. The rescue crew is made up of freed criminals, including a scraggly ronin named Sakura who was picked up for vagrancy. When Sakura learns about the peasants' objectives, as a former farmer he chooses to abandon Matsushita's men and partner up with Shiba. Sakura is then stunned to discover that a man he killed on the way to the mill was one of the peasants from the village, and he can't bear his guilt in front of the man's grieving widow.

Shiba and Sakura confront Kikyo and ask him to come over to their side, but Kikyo is too content with his luxurious lifestyle as Matsushita's lackey. Later Matsushita abducts the daughter of one of the peasants holed up at the mill, and there's an ugly hostage exchange situation. Shiba becomes a Christ figure offering to take the kidnappers' punishment when Matsushita swears an oath to spare the peasants. After having Shiba beaten to a bloody pulp, Matsushita breaks his word and hunts down the kidnappers. But their written petition remains at large, and Matsushita remains concerned that it will end up in the hands of the lord.

As the title of the movie leaves little doubt, in time Kikyo gets betrayed by Matsushita and changes teams to form a mighty trio of vengeance with Shiba and Sakura. The stage is set for an epic showdown that doesn't disappoint. Three Outlaw Samurai comes across as a more fun and lightweight movie than the dark meditations Gosha later became known for, though this story contains its fair share of worldly cynicism. It also presents a lot of Gosha's stylistic hallmarks in their early form, including his incisive editing, his skilled use of overhead and high-angle shots and his lateral pans.

Three Outlaw Samurai also contains one of my favorite lines of dialogue in a chambara action scene. Regretting that he was coerced into giving information to Matsushita, Sakura charges into the thick of the battle to join Shiba and Kikyo. "Hey, Shiba! I've done you wrong!" he yells while slinging his spear around and killing attackers. "I deserve to die! Kill me!"

Pausing in the thick of combat, Shiba replies, "I'm busy at the moment."

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