Three Outlaw Samurai sat on my Netflix queue -- the saved portion -- as I waited for the new Criterion Collection DVD to become available. I'd read this 1964 samurai movie was a prequel to a highly successful Japanese TV series that ran for six seasons. Now that said....I can find very little about the show. As for the movie....READ ON!!!
A wandering ronin without a master or a job, a samurai Sakon Shiba (Tetsuro Tanba) notices a commotion out away from the road at a small, run-down mill. Naturally curious, Shiba investigates, finding three dirt-poor peasants inside, and they've kidnapped the daughter of the local magistrate, a particularly brutal man. Their goal of the kidnapping is simple, their village having come up with a petition that makes demands on how the village should be treated. Shiba decides to set up shop in the mill and see what comes of it. The magistrate is expecting a visit from the powerful Lord in the district and wants nothing to go wrong. He sends waves of samurais and hired killers at the mill and village to wipe out his opposition. Shiba finds out he may not be alone in his fight and curiosity as two other samurais, Sakura (Isamu Nagato) and Kikyo (Mikijiro Hira), deciding whether to join the fight and on which side.
I like samurais. There, I could end the review with that simple statement, but I won't. It's easy to compare samurais to wild west gunslingers, both living by their own code. Sure, that's somewhat idealized thanks to movies and pop culture, but it's there. These were men who drifted along -- in the case of samurais at least -- roving the roads, sworn to help and do good things. Cool premise, huh? I typically think so. Director Hideo Gosha turns in a stylish, interesting, if flawed story that I liked, but I had some issues with it. It's good, worth recommending, especially for samurai movie fans, but there's also some serious issues.
Not surprisingly, I thought the strongest part of 'Samurai' was....well, the samurai. The concept of the samurai is what works, including an at-times heavy-handed message. It's the variety here. Tanba's Shiba is the main focus, a curious, loyal man of his word who tries to do the right thing. When we meet him stumbling into the kidnapping, we're not quite sure of his motivations. Does he hope to intercede? Will he side with the peasants? Has he made his decision or does he just linger out of curiosity? We find out his answer eventually, but the mystery works. The other two outlaw samurais are similarly interesting but for different reasons. Nagato as Sakura is the scene-stealer, a down on his luck ronin who we meet being released from a jail cell. He's hit a rough patch, looks generally disheveled, but through it all, he wants to do what's right. Hira's Kikyo is the most underused, a samurai working for the corrupt, powerful lord, a samurai finally pushed too far.
A tweak on the men-on-a-mission movie, I thought this was going to be a movie about three outlaw samurai (You know, with the title and all). I didn't realize this was a prequel to the TV series -- that I can't find information about -- so that obviously affects how things go. 'Samurai' simply takes too long in uniting the three outlaws. They're not actually brought together until the last 10 minutes of a 93-minute movie. Gosha's movie does a good job presenting the three characters as individuals and not a collective group. Interesting, fascinating characters, very capable with their own principles and motivations, but I wish there was more of them. This is a movie with a lot of characters, a lot of twists, and things get fairly jumbled once the ball gets rolling.
That becomes my biggest issue. The characters are cool, the action scenes are stylish and surprisingly graphic and unceremonious, and the black and white cinematography adds to that very visual style. Beyond those three main characters though, I struggle to identity other people worth mentioning. The evil Lord is very evil. It seemed there was about 9 different female characters, all interested in one of the samurai, or not, or a peasant, and I lost track of what was going on. I struggled to keep up, simple as that. Some of that I can no doubt attest to my lack of familiarity with the Japanese cast. Characters seem to flit in and out of the story. The overarching message is pretty cool in terms of how dark it is. The Japanese Lord consistently breaks his word, betraying anyone in his way, anyone who will stop him from reaching the power he needs and wants. Lots of potential, an okay end result for me.
Three Outlaw Samurai (1964): ** 1/2 /****