Three Yakuza (1965)
Directed by Tadashi Sawashima

Three Yakuza
Matatabi san ning yakuza
Starring Tatsuya Nakadai (Sentaro), Takashi Shimura (The old man), Kinnosuke Nakamura (Kyutaro), Hiroki Matsukata (Genta), Junko Fuji (Omiyo), Hiroko Sakuramachi, Wakaba Irie

Toei Company, 120 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Kurotokagi Gumi (TV broadcast quality)

I love jidai-geki movies about yakuza. I love anthology movies with individual short stories. And any movie with Tatsuya Nakadai, Takashi Shimura and Kinnosuke Nakamura in it has got to be pretty good. So Three Yakuza is a film that's very easy for me to like. A series of three vignettes make this sort of a 1960s yakuza version of Pulp Fiction, insofar as it explores a number of familiar genre themes in new ways. We have the hooker with a heart of gold. We have the old, world-weary gambler trying to convince a young aspiring hustler to go straight. We have the coward forced to pose as a brave warrior. Tadashi Sawashima manages to find something fresh and interesting in these old narrative cliches.

Even more remarkable, Sawashima does each of the three vignettes with a completely different style and tone. You could easily believe that the three stories were contributed by three different directors.

The first segment starring Nakadai has the steely, cynical feel of a Hideo Gosha film. The horrible climactic revelation that his character faces even mirrors a key subplot from Three Outlaw Samurai. The second segment with Shimura feels more like something out of Masaki Kobayashi, contemplative and steeped in unspoken regrets. The complex relationship between the old man and his junior counterpart recalls the father/son-in-law dynamics (and the non-linear narrative structures) found in both Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion.

In the third story, which is my favorite, Sawashima returns to his old familiar cinematic territory with a lighthearted, old-fashioned ninkyo-eiga tale involving disguises and pretense. Nakamura gives an outstanding performance as a wandering yakuza unwittingly drafted into defending a village against the corrupt official who is unfairly taxing and exploiting them to death. It's a Seven Samurai scenario in miniature and in reverse, since in this case the hired muscle is an incompetent fighter who's all talk. This leads to some hilarious depictions of inept hand-to-hand combat that rival even the wife's version of the Rashomon duel, and the final outcome of the cowardly hero's predicament is pure brilliance.

In sum, Three Yakuza is a cohesive set of diversely imagined short features, and a bravura performance by the sadly underrated Tadashi Sawashima. This is proof that he was capable of being far more than the simplistic genre filmmaker he was shoehorned into being for most of his career.

The Jidai-Geki Knights