Compared to some of the other samurai films I’ve watched in recent months, this one was pretty enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very Japanese – you’ve got plenty of tragic death and loss, but the dynamic of the three protagonists makes for a fun watch. Each of the characters is simple and somewhat archetypal, but there’s also a certain depth to the plot and cast of characters as a whole.
The first samurai we encounter, Shiba Sakon, initially presents the kind of swagger we usually get from Toshiro Mifune. Looking for shelter, he stumbles upon a group of dirty, ugly peasants in a mill who have kidnapped their lord’s daughter. In many other traditions, the hero would slice up the thugs, rescue the girl, return her to her father, and spurn any sort of reward.
Shiba, however, listens to the peasants tell their side of the story, and ultimately decides to help them out! They’ve only kidnapped her, after all, because of their lord’s oppressive rule and he just won’t listen.
We encounter our second samurai hero after Lord Igawa rounds up a few warriors to go take care of the peasants and get his daughter back. Sakura Kyojuro is a wandering samurai who’s gotta eat, and rescuing a damsel in distress sounds good. On the way to the mill, one of the villagers jumps him, thinking he’s just a hired goon (which he is) going to kill his friends. Sakura dispatches the man with minimal effort. Thinking him a bandit, he just shakes his head and clucks his tongue.
When Sakura and band arrive at the mill, Shiba explains the situation. Coming from farmer stock himself, Sakura sympathizes and changes sides. This guy, the stocky samurai with the heart of gold, is probably my favorite of the group. He’s brave, compassionate, and hey, he fights with a spear! Incidentally, when he finds out later that the guy he killed was one of the villagers, he feels terrible and tries to make amends.
Our last of the three, Kikyo Einosuke, is harder to peg. For most of the film, he’s the lord’s hired dog, but he doesn’t actually kill anyone. He mostly just leads the other goons around and banters with Sakura. Although he seems to admire the vagabond samurai, he also loves living the high life.
At one point he aids one of the good guys in escaping from the lord’s manor, but it’s not until the lord betrays him, killing his hooker-girlfriend and trying to have him killed, that he turns and joins the other two outlaw samurai.
And once the band is together, well. They’re a force!
Like many other samurai movies, Three Outlaw Samurai is jam-packed with social commentary. There’s good and bad to be seen in all of the characters, making for an engaging, stimulating watch. Recommended!