It is without a doubt one of the most incredible shots in the history of the cinema. And yet it was the work of a director, Hideo Gosha, on his first motion picture, Three Outlaw Samurai (1964). Picture to yourself a peasant who with two of his friends kidnapped the daughter of a corrupt local magistrate as part of a protest against his cruel administration. Instead of keeping his promises, this magistrate sends thugs to kill him. As he lies bleeding with his back slashed by a sword, we cut to a closeup up the peasant, dying, looking with wide-eyed wonder at a lone wildflower growing in front of his face.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Japanese cinema was at its height, one of the most fascinating in the world. The best of their films were in a genre known as jidaigeki, historical pictures set mostly during the Tokugawa Shogunate between 1603 and 1868. Starring most prominently were samurai, particularly masterless or outlaw samurai called ronin. Other films in the genre portrayed gangsters (yakuza), merchants, even peasants.
I had seen Three Outlaw Samurai at least twice before, but this time the film’s pessimism struck home. Aiding the peasants in their protest are three ronin who, one by one, come together. They are unable, however, to help the peasants win. After the three who kidnapped the magistrate’s daughter are killed, the other peasants in the surrounding villages are afraid to present their protest to a wondering clan chief who is due to visit in a few days. It is because of this visit that the magistrate hires waves of goons to attack not only the protestors, but previous goons who are asking for too much money.
The bloodshed is considerable. The three ronin kill at least a hundred of the magistrate’s men, who in turn kill large numbers of peasants. At the end, the three ronin decide to travel together in a direction selected by chance.
Ever since I first fell in love with movies as a student at Dartmouth, I have loved the fast action of chambara (“sword fight”) films. But, like the best Westerns, these “Easterns” can attain the status of high art. In a future post, I will list my favorite samurai films.