Hideo Gosha, one of my all-time favourite directors, made a name for himself with his early TV series “Three Outlaw Samurai,” or so I’ve been told. This series led to Gosha’s first film in 1964, a cinematic adaptation of the same series. It seems someone (perhaps Gosha himself) remained quite fond of the series, since in 1970 a new TV version started back up. The only returning cast member was Isamu Nagato, who reprised his role as Sakura Kyojuro, the spear master. The other two members of the “three outlaw samurai” were not only new actors, but new characters as well. So, is this a remake, or a continuation of the original series? Sadly, I can’t tell you. What I can tell you, though, is that the new series got off to a pretty great start.
The first episode of “Three Outlaw Samurai” (re)introduces the audience to Sakura Kyojuro, a ronin whose weapon of choice is the spear. He serves as the show’s moral center, and it’s comedy relief--think of Toshiro Mifune’s yojimbo character in SANJURO. He has, I’m not embarrassed to say, an enchanting twinkle in his eye, and seems incredibly comfortable in front of the camera.
Before we get to Sakura, though, the audience first encounters one of the series’ new characters, Nagare Ukon, a surely, emotionless ronin and iai master (I got this last bit--“iai master”--from the write up. If I understand correctly, that means his specialty is drawing his sword from his scabbard and killing you with one stroke). If Sakura is this movie’s comic relief, Nagare is his foil; played by Noboru Ando, a former real-life yakuza whose face is scarred from a run-in with a knife-wielding Korean gangster in his youth, Nagare talks little and kills lots. Sakura and Nagare meet up when the latter returns to the town where he was recently wronged, seeking vengeance. The two soon run afoul Kaeda Genzaburo (Gen Takamori), who initially stands in their way, but eventually becomes the third member of the trio (his role is less determined in the first couple of episodes--if we’ve already got a funny one and a deadly one, I guess he’s the handsome one, or the straight man, or something). While the three start out at odds, all with different goals in mind, they soon unite to take down the town’s corrupt politicians, who are using the citizens as indentured servants in the town’s mine.
By the end of the first episode, the three find themselves with a common cause, but the next episode begins with them separated once more. Nagare has come to a watermill, where a large ransom is up for grabs for anyone who can rescue an unnamed captive who is being held by a blind swordsman. Sakura, who also wants the money, meets up with Nagare once more, and the two try to figure out how they can beat all of the other bounty hunters out of the reward. Kaeda, the odd man out, soon arrives, and the three outlaw samurai are once more united. Meanwhile, we slowly learn the back-story to the situation: who is this blind swordsman, and the woman who accompanies him? Who is their captive, and why is he worth so much? And what’s with this 3 PM deadline?
The first two episodes of “Three Outlaw Samurai” are directed by Gosha himself, and it shows. Not only are the visuals more striking than you’d expect from a TV series, but the sword fights are off the chain, and in many ways better than many samurai films. Each episode works very well as a miniature movie, introducing a unique plot, some character development, and a bloody showdown resolution. Nagato is a joy to watch, and speaks the lion’s share of the dialogue, which leaves Ando to stand around and be menacing, which is something he excels at. Many of Gosha’s trademarks can be found in the show, such as the repeated portrayal of “legitimate” samurai as villains (and ronin as heroes), and the way even the most moral of characters are likely to end up a victim of a nihilistic bloodbath.
The first three episodes of “Three Outlaw Samurai” were all I could ask for. Can't wait to see where the rest of the series goes.