Three Outlaw Samurai (1964)
Having seen Rurouni Kenshin recently, I decided to see a more “grown up” samurai movie, and I thought I found it in the form of Three Outlaw Samurai (三匹の侍, sanbiki no samurai).
In a manner I found very reminiscent of Kurosawa Akira’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro, ronin Shiba Sakon (Tanba Tetsuro) wanders into a hostage situation, where three peasants have abducted Aya (the very pretty Kuwano Miyuki), daughter of a corrupt magistrate, in order to coerce that magistrate into lowering taxes and generally stop mistreating the peasants. Shiba then decides to help the peasants in finding justice and enlists the help of two fellow samurai along the way.
Three Outlaw Samurai is another movie from the Japanese new wave, like Take Aim at the Police Van (1960) and Crazed Fruit (1956). Much like Crazed Fruit was a lot more sexually explicit than what I would have expected from a movie from that time, Three Outlaw Samurai is actually the most violent film I have seen in a while. The reason that is so is because Three Outlaw Samurai really is a chanbara eiga (チャンバラ映画), or swordfighting movie. While the movie is very plot-driven, the katana duels took precedence over a lot of things.
The sword fights were excellently done, I might add. While I know next to nothing about actual Japanese kenjutsu, the choreography was enough to convince me as soon as I suspended my belief about the idea of one skilled samurai taking on hordes of dudes with swords and winning.
Despite being a chanbara eiga, Three Outlaw Samurai also had its thoughtful moments as a careful study on the human condition. Shiba observes throughout the movie that fear of punishment is often enough to weaken someone’s commitment to a cause. Even Aya takes away things she has seen from the side of the peasants. I can see this movie as a manifestation of Japan embracing its newfound prosperity with an emerging (and highly prosperous) middle class and its rejection of wartime values.
I just wish the movie had a little more of those thoughtful moments. Oddly enough, some of the characters, like Aya, wound up being a little underused, possibly due to the movie having a character or two more than it could have handled in a runtime of just over 90 minutes. For that reason, I’m unlikely to recommend Three Outlaw Samurai over a contemporary Kurosawa film like Yojimbo. Sure, Three Outlaw Samurai was a good movie, but it had just enough going against it to not be a great movie.