It could be a bit of stretch to read a samurai film as Marxist, but if Ken Loach were ever to swap kestrels for katanas, it might look a bit like Three Outlaw Samurai, the debut film of Hideo Gosha. There’s a broiling anger and righteous distaste for the rigid social order fuelling the film, as three disparate figures come together to fight feudal authorities riddled with corruption. Not as heralded as some of his illustrious contemporaries, Gosha’s first feature is nevertheless a tight, dense and immaculately shot film that is unafraid to be far bloodier in both its violence and outlook than others in the genre at the time.

Sakon Shiba (Tetsurô Tanba), a wandering rōnin, comes across three peasants holding the daughter of a magistrate hostage. The desperate trio are hoping that they can force the hand of the authorities to meet with them and let them air their grievances. Shiba is disdainful of their methods but sympathetic with their cause so decides to fight their corner. Two other masterless samurai, Sakura and Kikyô (Isamu Nagato and Mikijirô Hira), are released from prison for minor offences in return for freeing the woman and killing Shiba, but eventually resolve to side with the underdogs.

Three Outlaw Samurai has all the recognisable ingredients of a chanbara set during the Edo period, the final two centuries of feudal Japan. Simply having ‘samurai’ in the title will evoke Akira Kurosawa, and at first Sakon cuts a figure rather like that of Toshirô Mifune‘s Sanjuro in Yojimbo. There’s a sardonic, almost bored air about him, as if he’s taking up the cause of the peasants simply for something to do. It soon becomes clear however that he has an idealistic side bordering on naive as he continues to trust in the feudal codes of honour, even when it’s clear that Mosuke the magistrate (Hisashi Igawa – in very much a Sheriff of Nottingham type role) holds no such scruples.

His two, initially antagonistic, cohorts Sakura and Kikyô are happy to take mercenary rates but also follow their own codes. Sakura is impetuous and passionate, providing a little comic relief. Kikyô is taciturn and imperious, only turning on his paymasters after being impressed by Sakon’s loyalty and resilience, and disgusted by the magistrate breaking a samurai vow. The varying loyalties and shifting moral stances of the characters help keep the story consistently interesting, and when the trio finally form a solid bond it’s an exhilarating moment. The film is a prequel to a popular series of the same name, and the idea of three wandering swordsmen righting wrongs like a Japanese A-Team sounds amazing.

Performances are great across the board, with nice additional roles for the elfin Miyuki Kuwano as Aya the magistrates daughter and Toshie Kumura as Oine, a widow with whom Sakura forms a bond, even though he’s the one who has killed her husband. Both roles have a little more depth and complexity than standard depictions of women in peril, influencing the story as characters in their own right, rather than as plot devices. Gosha’s direction is surprisingly controlled and measured for such an angry work. A standout scene sees a slow and steady shot patiently picking up flurries and fragments of a fight that spills through paper walls and between floors, as if viewed from a safe distance by a careful bystander. The gorgeous, crisp photography of Tadashi Sakai has been immaculately transferred (no surprise for a Criterion release), with Edo depicted as a boiling hotbed of sweat and grime.

While inevitable comparisons will be made with Kurosawa, in terms of stripping out the romantic notions of the chanbara, Gosha’s film far more closely resembles Masaki Kobayashi‘s sublimely furious Harakiri. But while Kobayashi’s anger is more calmly channelled and presented, Gosha’s violence is presented in sudden flashes of steel and gouts of blood. His clashes are short, sharp, shocks, as most fights involving swords were likely to have been. The samurai film shares much of its DNA with the western, and Three Outlaw Samurai would be the equivalent of the revisionist western such as Unforgiven, while sharing the amplified carnage and moral fluidity of the likes of Django. Like these films, and here is where the flippant Ken Loach comparison is valid, any victories are inherently Pyrrhic (plus the peasants are clearly unofficially attempting to unionise. Samurai shop stewards? Why not?). Battles may have been won, but idealism is the victim and the social and economic edifices represented by the villains remain solidly in place.

It’s the willingness to subtly subvert the tropes of the samurai film that makes Three Outlaw Samurai such compelling viewing and deserving of far higher esteem among the genre’s heavyweights. There are so many samurai, mercenaries and henchmen rattling through its 94 minutes that it’s occasionally dizzying, and there’s a scene late on that’s framed as a climactic showdown that loses its impact as the character had only just been introduced, but Gosha otherwise puts nary a be-sandaled toe wrong in a startling debut.

Available on Blu-ray from Mon 20 Jul 2020