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Three Outlaw Samurai: The Disloyal Bunch

For nearly three decades, Hideo Gosha (1929–1992) made some of the most explosive, artful, and original films in Japanese cinema. Along the way, he also became one of his country’s most established and acclaimed filmmakers. But his reputation in the West has never been particularly prominent—surprising, perhaps, since so many of his films fit into those Japanese genres Americans and Europeans know so well, samurai and yakuza pictures.

One reason Gosha’s films may not have caught on in the West is how utterly cynical they are about the worlds they depict—even more so than Akira Kurosawa’s or Hiroshi Inagaki’s or Masaki Kobayashi’s—often gruesomely giving the lie to the traditional hero narrative’s myths about honor, loyalty, and noble death. (Later in life, Gosha brought some of this refreshing nihilism to another popular Japanese genre, the women’s picture, calling into question the mythology of domestic life even while revealing a sensitivity toward female characters and narratives that had been submerged in his earlier work.) If one were to compare Gosha to American directors of westerns, he’d be closest to Sam Peckinpah. Their early careers followed similar paths too. Both rose in the medium of television, where they excelled at the genre work that would later define their film output. Gosha started out as a television reporter in the early 1950s, and then became a producer and director of action series. Three Outlaw Samurai, which began airing in 1963, was his most popular of these, hailed for its groundbreaking violence and camera work and its intense sound effects. The story of three wandering ronin who help out strangers in need, A-Team-style, it was also the basis for his first foray into feature filmmaking in 1964. (The series lasted, in its first iteration, for six seasons, though Gosha was not as involved in the later ones. He stepped back in, however, in 1970, reviving the franchise briefly.)

It’s interesting to discover that this most cinematic of Japanese directors—whose widescreen frames are filled with startling compositions that lend his films the quality of fever dreams—cut his teeth in television. Because the early seasons of Three Outlaw Samurai appear to be lost, we can’t directly discern what Gosha’s work was like before he became a filmmaker. But the 1970 revival fairly trembles with his desire to break free of the small frame and the other constraints of the medium—it’s full of dazzling, expertly choreographed fight sequences, shot without the benefit of fancy cutting or framing.

The word perfectionist doesn’t quite do justice to Gosha and his single-minded pursuit of his craft. The director was notori­ous not just for his slavish attention to detail, particularly when directing swordplay, but also for his brusque demeanor with both stars and technicians. His longtime cinematographer Fujio Morita once remarked on Gosha’s propensity for making his actresses cry. He famously fired his entire crew on Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron (1978). The great Toshiro Mifune, him­self no slouch in the exacting obsessive department, bailed on Gosha’s 1969 epic Goyokin midway through shooting; he cited exhaustion, but some have suggested he bristled at the maestro’s tyrannical style.

Whatever Gosha’s directorial disposition, however, clearly his approach to filmmaking paid enormous dividends. Right from the beginning of his career, it was obvious that he was a cinematic force to be reckoned with—exciting, fierce, highly sophisticated. Gosha’s is an extraordinarily tactile and phys­i­cal cinema. He sometimes gets uncomfortably close to the action: his beautiful, striking compositions are constantly on the verge of being upended by yet another body or weapon flying into the frame, or by the background action suddenly moving into the foreground. (It would have been fascinating to see him make a horror film, one of the only classic Japanese genres he didn’t dive into.)

Three Outlaw Samurai is a supremely confident big-screen debut, whose surface simplicity masks a scathing vision of society lurking beneath. In some ways, it recalls Kurosawa’s samurai narratives, with its tale of renegade ronin who come to the aid of the dispossessed. But Gosha’s personal obsessions are all over the film, particularly in his depiction of the loss of honor through blind loyalty (and its liberating opposite, the regaining of honor by betrayal), and in the sharp contrast he makes between the refined, comforting worlds of power and social duty and the wild, almost animalistic existence of those who choose freedom. And unlike Kurosawa, whose characters tend to be classically drawn and endlessly layered, Gosha often works in broad strokes: his characters are archetypes, which he then deconstructs and plays off one another. A samurai can go from fighting alongside a group to fighting against them in one brief shot, as in Three Outlaw Samurai. These characters may be simple, but Gosha’s real interest is in the portrait of society he is creating—and that is anything but.

To play his drifters, Gosha turned to the leads from the first season of the television show, Tetsuro Tamba, Isamu Nagato, and Mikijiro Hira—all big names, or soon to be, in the genre, together on the big screen for the only time here. Tamba was already a star in high demand, having appeared so memorably as the ruthless object of Tatsuya Nakadai’s vengeance in Kobayashi’s Harakiri (1962). (He would go on to make more than three hundred films, including the 1967 James Bond thriller You Only Live Twice.) Hira was on the verge of fame; he played in Adventures of Zatoichi that same year, as a mysterious and stoic samurai not unlike his mercenary character in Gosha’s film. (He would also appear in Gosha’s next project, Sword of the Beast, 1965.) The avuncular, round-faced Nagato, on the other hand, was mostly an unknown, but 1964 would turn into something of a banner year for him, for it also saw the release of Seiichiro Uchikawa’s cult classic Samurai from Nowhere, in which he starred as a masterless swordsman trying to hustle money to bribe his way to freedom.

The opening scenes of Three Outlaw Samurai offer a workshop in economic genre character development. The film begins with Shiba (Tamba), a wayward samurai (who will no doubt remind many viewers of Mifune’s Sanjuro in Kurosawa’s 1961 Yojimbo), walking down a road. He sees a man scamper out of a field behind him and run away, scared. He notices a distant farmhouse in the direction from which the fleeing man came. Approaching the farmhouse, Shiba finds a woman’s kanzashi hairpin on the ground. (These long, sharp items play a curiously important role in Gosha’s films, usually for their defensive properties.) He walks into the farmhouse and discovers three bedraggled peasants who’ve tied up a woman.

Then something quite unexpected happens. He immediately asks the peasants if they’ve raped her. When he finds out that they haven’t and that they’re holding her hostage to try to get the local magistrate (her father) to hear their grievances, Shiba begins to warm to them. His initial instinct to help this damsel in distress, which in any other genre film would be the height of heroism, gives way to a willingness to help her kidnappers—despite the fact that these poor farmers actually try to kill him.

The second sequence takes us to the mag­is­trate’s palace, where a breathless servant informs the lord that his missing daughter is being held captive. The magistrate orders his men to kill the farmers and rescue the girl. Throughout this scene, another samurai, Kikyo (Hira), calmly paces in the background, coolly listening to the proceedings. When one of the magistrate’s men asks Kikyo to join them, the indifferent warrior refuses: “Fighting peasants is a waste of my skills,” he sighs. Later, talk­ing to a servant girl, he muses that what the kidnappers are doing is “stupid,” because it won’t lead to any reform. Here’s a character whose cynicism knows no bounds: he works for the magistrate, he expresses some mild sympathy for the peasants’ goals, but he refuses to fight for or against them.

Not long after, we meet Sakura (Nagato), a portly spear carrier being held in one of the magistrate’s prisons, who agrees to help the official’s men. But then, in a surprising stand-off with Shiba and the kidnappers, Sakura switches his allegiance and takes the peasants’ side in the middle of battle, and begins fighting the group of men he arrived with. That’s only after he has already killed—and rather non­chalantly at that—a peasant on the way to the encounter, though.

The fluidity of allegiances Gosha sets up here is remarkable. The only loyalty these samurai seem to have is to their own freedom to be disloyal. All three of the “outlaws” of the title will eventually come over to the peasants’ side. But the deceit reaches further than that. At one point near the end of the film, the magistrate makes a solemn pledge to Shiba that he won’t punish the kidnappers if they return his daughter; of course, he does not abide by this oath. And that broken promise in turn sets off his daughter’s own act of betrayal. Along the way, Gosha also shows the consequences of loyalty: for all his treachery and callous brutality, the magistrate is revealed to be, like so many of Gosha’s villains, just a glorified bureaucrat fearful of being embarrassed in front of his superiors. In this moral universe, allegiance to the social hierarchy is a force not of cohesion and honor but of paralysis and corruption.

The samurai film, especially after World War II, often drew sharp moral distinctions between loyalty and honor, delinking the concepts, which had been so disastrously bound together during that cataclysm. But Gosha’s films went even further: they seem to exist in a tenuous phantom world where loyalty (even toward one’s family) has lost all meaning and betrayal itself has become a kind of currency. In an environment of such queasy uncertainty, one never knows when or from where the next double-cross will come.

Gosha would go on to develop that environment throughout his career, and environment really is the right word here: very often, his rootless characters are left wandering the wilderness, at the mercy of the elements—be it rain or mud or snow—and they at times feel like extensions of the animal world. In Samurai Wolf (1966), an unlucky monkey jumps between our hero and the villain’s saber during the climactic fight. In 1974’s amazingly stylized gangster film Violent Streets, it’s a caged fighting dog that gets between a baddie’s arm and one of the film’s protagonists; both that film and Hunter in the Dark (1979) feature disturbingly strange and violent set pieces involving chickens.

Gosha doesn’t elevate animals to the status of symbols; rather, he brings his heroes down to the level of beasts, because that’s the consequence of rejecting society’s hierarchies, how­ever empty and corrosive. Indeed, as early as Sword of the Beast, which seems to literally take place in some sort of primeval forest, the choice between dying like a samurai and living like a beast is made explicit—but the hero chooses to live, a direct challenge to the typical honor narrative. And even when his characters choose to die, Gosha upends the myth of the noble death in fascinating ways. In one of his most notorious films, Tenchu! (1969), a sort of blood-soaked, absurdist samurai bildungsroman, an impressionable, des­perate young warrior (the immortal Shintaro Katsu, of the Zatoichi pictures) is turned into the perfect assassin by a powerful clan, then, after slaughtering countless hundreds, is faced with the emptiness of loyalty. The film ends garishly, with our hero gleefully accepting death by allowing himself to be speared repeatedly while tied to a cross. His blood flows over the end credits; he expresses only relief that, unlike his clan elder and chief betrayer, he doesn’t need to kill himself via seppuku. In a later epic, Onimasa (1982), an aging yakuza boss (Tatsuya Nakadai, who starred in many of Gosha’s films) heads off to fight one final battle, expecting to die alongside his daughter. Instead, he is wounded and lives—and a closing title informs us that he ended up in prison and died a rather miserable, anonymous death there.

By these standards, Three Outlaw Samurai concludes on a positively uplifting note, with its heroes free to walk the earth. But Gosha never grants his viewers or his characters the traditional vessels of honor—be it a noble death or a resto­ration of status or a re-created community—and even here, in his first film, his gaze remains ruthless. The petition of grievances for which the kidnappers gave their lives, and for which our heroes have fought, is abandoned by the remaining peasants. The brief feeling of belonging that these warriors might have had fighting for the poor farmers has turned out to be an illusion. When the outlaws wander into the distance in the final shot, we sense no triumph, but rather a kind of quiet disgust. They’re even more rootless now than when the film began. Gosha’s characters either die like animals or they wander like animals. In his world, those are the wages of freedom.

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