Three Outlaw Samurai (1964) is akin to a Hideo Gosha morality picture, simple in terms of concept, plot, and characters but relating a story of trauma hidden away from nobility. It’s ostensibly a story of the Shogun coming face-to-face with the hurt their greed has caused and having to reconcile with this fact. The wandering Samurai caught in the midst of a village conflict and his humanity rising to the surface narrative.
When three peasants kidnap the Lord’s daughter (Miyuki Kuwano), it sets in motion a long line of atrocities committed against the peasants and Samurai. Sakon Shiba (Tetsurō Tamba) wanders into town, instantly picking sides against the Daimyo and their oppression. He stands in front of the damage to the Peasants risking their lives, recognizing their weakness and understanding their plight.
The wandering Samurai is a wonderful trope that seemingly always works in film. Sakon is much like the others, fiercely independent but also drawn to the needy. In a Seven Samurai-like manner, he recruits other like-minded Samurai (Isamu Nagato and Mirkijro Hira) to selflessly help the cause. All three play it with a sense of doom, but never seem to show it in their expression. It’s hidden under strength and a sense of duty.
Gosha and the Visual Element
Visually, Gosha keeps it relatively simple – there are not many locations, and many shots are set up and blocked the same. Medium shots watching expression, but when he does back up and shoot action sequences, the film shines. The final act has too many compelling battle scenes, each one captured with style, but not overbearing. Tadashi Sakai’s cinematography has great spatial awareness in the action but becomes numbingly plain with his interior shots.
Additionally, Kazuo Ota’s editing keeps a small-in-scale plot interesting and the pacing moves briskly. There’s no scene that feels overlong. It helps considering the script lacks some detail, relying on the visual element to carry the story. Ota, in both the action and dialog sequences, never lingers and keeps the attention right where it belongs: on the film’s themes.
Thematically, the film carries a strong message about feudalism and loyalty. It paints the Lord as unfeeling and disrespectful of anybody below him. He backs out on his promises and disrespects his retainer, even his daughter finally recognizes his cruelty.
It’s not a film that will sit among the pantheon of the greatest Samurai films ever made, but a damn fine entry into the genre nonetheless. Gosha has a direct style that is easily decipherable in terms of plot, themes, and ideas, leaving a bit to be desired visually but makes it for it with excellent character work. The actors elevate the hell out of this script and make this an endlessly watchable film.