“Fate chose me. Don’t say a word.”
The film begins (as does Gosha’s career!) with a freeze frame on the disturbance of mud. It is an exceptional film about loyalty, social unrest, and the selfish disconnection between a ruler and his people. The dynamic between the three samurai of the title are themselves used as an undulating wave of emotional prodding at the audience. These are central characters but we never learn anything about them (their history for instance) apart from their moral character. This is significant in that it forces the audience to appraise these characters purely by their actions unmolested by past accomplishments or crimes. Like the doomed character who pronounced the quote above, fate makes no exception for status or class, fair or unfair, right or wrong – such is a game she plays.
Aya, the daughter of a crooked magistrate named Matsushita is abducted by a band of peasants. They send their demands to lower taxes and the magistrate travels to confront them. A ronin named Sakon Shiba stumbles upon the peasants during his wandering and holes up in the mill they’re hiding out in. He gives them advice and seems to half-heartedly side with them after they explain their demands and level of poverty. Not long after, Matsushita with his modest army bursts into the barn, but Shiba alone causes them to flee. The magistrate is hesitant to inform the rest of the clan (who could provide some valuable reinforcements to resolve this matter quickly and efficiently) under of the disgrace of incompetence. However, the lord is to passing through the town soon, so the matter must be resolved quickly. Matsushita decides to hire a band of criminals to execute the mob. He sends his formidable guard named Kikyo to oversee the operation. Kikyo is the classic antihero; uninterested, selfish, but incapable of allowing innocent people to suffer. Also in the group is a ronin named Kyojuro Sakura (the only character/actor returning from the original series).
A major early turning point in the film involves a friend of the peasants named Mosuke who travels to the mill to bring them food and supplies. He attempts to kill Sakura who kills him easily, even offhandedly. Sakura finds the bag of food Mosuke was carrying and brings it with him. Kikyo’s band begins an assault on the mill, but Sakura (a peasant once himself) is so moved by the peasants’ plight that he joins with Shiba on the spot. Kikyo, disgusted, returns to the magistrate with his gang to form a new plan. Sakura gives the food to the starving peasants and they recognize it as belonging to Mosuke. Sakura, realizing that he had unknowingly killed their friend, says that he only stumbled upon the bag. Matsushita orders Kikyo to kidnap Oyasu, the daughter of Gosaku (one of the men who kidnapped Aya). Meanwhile, Sakura attempts to comfort Mosuke’s widow, Oine; his conscience eating him alive. When Sakura returns to the mill, the magistrate and his band demand the peasants trade Aya for Oyasu. Gosaku is about to make the exchange but Oyasu falls, bites her tongue, and dies. Gosaku attempts to strangle Aya but Shiba intervenes. The magistrate gives his word to Shiba that he will not punish the peasants if Aya is returned and if Shiba receives one hundred lashes. Shiba releases Aya and himself into the clutches of the magistrate.
It is here, Matsushita’s betrayal of that pact between samurai where the film really begins (halfway through of course). The keyword of the film is reluctance. All of these characters display copious amounts of hesitation. The magistrate is hesitant to help the people, the people are hesitant to ask for help, the ronin are hesitant to be loyal yet they’re hesitant to resist loyalty. The score by Toshiaki Tsushima is minimalism at its finest and most powerful. Gosha’s expert use of Dutch angles is also notable and wildly effective at certain points. The action scenes are (until the extravagant ending) brief but intense. It’s a very realistic film (occasionally interrupted by unlikely plot devices) that’s both brutal and unforgiving – especially to its characters. No one escapes the film unscathed by fate and its domineering hand watching happiness from utter desolation grow.