Unusual samurai tale with strong romantic elements
THREE YOUNG SAMURAI (1961) is one of the oddest samurai films I've ever seen, but also a quite compelling one. Although it's ostensibly about three male friends who left their village to go off to war together, it places greater emphasis on the women who enter their lives. The three young fighters wind up on the wrong side of a battle in 16th century Japan and go off on their separate ways after their side, the Tokugawas, is forced to surrender to the opposing Lord Takeda. Back home, all three loved the same woman, Miyuki (Mieko Kondo), but she loves only Hachiro (Shintaro Katsu), who is captured on the battlefield and winds up as vassal of the mysterious Lady Arari (Yoshie Mizutani) after he refuses to make a formal surrender to Takeda. Sanzo (Gen Mitamura) is abducted by a gang of bandits, but their female leader, Hime (Kyoko Enami), takes a liking to him and makes him her lover and co-leader of the gang. Poor Kitota (Katsuhiko Kobayashi) pines consistently for Miyuki and vows to kill Hachiro for abandoning her. He eventually has quite a knockdown, drag-out brawl with Hachiro that's shot and staged with astonishing brutality. It's rough and messy, like a real fight. The characters' paths continually crisscross and they're never all that far geographically from each other as the tide of war slowly changes in the Tokugawas' favor, jeopardizing everyone still in the Takeda camp.
The narrative doesn't always flow in a linear fashion and we don't always know where characters are in relation to each other at a given time. Also, since we never see the three men, Hachiro, Sanzo, and Kitota, in their pre-war friendship, we have little investment in their relations with each other. Hachiro comes off as the most admirable since he takes control of his destiny and makes the kind of firm commitments to action that the others can't seem to make. Of the women, Miyuki is the most passive and given to frequent tears and we can't really blame Hachiro for falling for Arari or Sanzo for taking up with Hime. Arari and Hime are both assertive, proactive, beautiful, and in charge of their fates. They're easily the strongest characters in the film, although Hachiro eventually proves his true worth. The relationships with the women characters are the most important ones in the film, which is quite rare for a samurai film.
The film was produced by the Daiei Studio, which certainly knew how to make this kind of film well. It's beautifully shot in black-and-white and widescreen, with a mix of spectacular location shots and large expertly-crafted studio sets. There were some nighttime exterior scenes where I wasn't sure if it was shot outdoors or on a soundstage. Star Shintaro Katsu would go on the next year to headline the studio's long-running Zatoichi series of films. The more I see of his earlier, pre-Zatoichi work, such as this, THE LOYAL 47 RONIN (1958), and KOJIRO'S TURNING SWALLOW CUT (1961), the more I prefer it. (I have reviewed both of those films on IMDB.) His most expressive feature is his eyes, something the blind swordsman hides from us. He was also quite handsome and charismatic when not in Zatoichi mode. I wasn't familiar with the rest of the cast, other than Yoshie Mizutani (Arari), whom I've also seen in KILLING IN YOSHIWARA (1960) and SLEEPY EYES OF DEATH: MASK OF THE PRINCESS (1966), neither of which are listed in her IMDB filmography. The director of this film, Kazuo Mori, also directed a number of exemplary yakuza, ninja and samurai films, including SAMURAI VENDETTA, JIROCHO FUJI, SHINOBI NO MONO 3, and three Zatoichi films.
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