A ronin named Sakon Shiba stumbles on three peasants holding a lady hostage, so that her father, Matsushita the magistrate, will hear their concerns. The people are starving to death and the taxes are too high. Shiba seems not to be concerned by the going on, but when the magistrate and his men burst in to the mill, he takes the sides of the peasants. The peasants regain the upper hand and the magistrate is forced to leave without his daughter.
Matsushita then sends some thieves he had in jail to get his daughter and Kikyo, his own samurai. He also sends another samurai who he had in prison for travelling through without a pass, Kyojuro Sakura. Shiba quickly dispenses with one of the brigands and is to go up against the spearman Sakura. Sakura finds out what the peasants are doing he quickly switches to their side and joins in with Sakon Shiba. Kikyo just looks on but doesn't get involved. He seems to sympathize with the peasants but he knows where his fine food and wine is coming from.
Matsushita then gathers a dozen more ronins to get his daughter and kill the peasants. When they enter the mill, Sakura then fights them off just using a stick, feeling they are not worthy of his sword. Matsushita then has Kikyo and some men kidnap one of the peasants' daughters. They then begin torturing her outside the mill. The peasant is about to make the trade but his daughter bites off her tongue to kill herself. This scene is a brutal indictment of the samurai world, and how the peasants were treated.
Shiba then rescues the magistate's daughter from being beaten by the peasant, and says he will give the magistrate his daughter if he will not punish the peasants. Matsushita agrees, giving his word as a samurai, but saya there must be a punishment. Shiba volunteees to receive one hundred strokes with a club. When asked by the magistrates daughter why he would agree to such a thing Shiba says : "These peasants risked their lives. A samurai can do no less."
As Shiba is being beaten, Kikyo watches carefully. Matsushita goes back on his word and jails Shiba after beating him, and then has the peasants killed. Kikyo has seen enough and helps free the wounded Shiba. Matsushita's daughter then actually helps him with his escape and Kikyo joins Shiba at the mill. One of Matsushita's samurais comes and is concerned that this business may disturb their lords trip through the land. He is not happy with Matsushita's incompetence. He brings his men up to finish off Shiba, but finds Kikyo there too. The battle begins but then Sakura, feeling guilty, leaves his woman and joins the fray. It comes down to Shiba vs. the Lord's samurai and Shiba comes out on top. The three outlaw samurai then go walking down the road.
The movie is a very insightful look at the samurai system and the class system in Japan . It makes it clear that once you are no longer inside of the establishment, it is very easy to see what is right. Shiba and Sakura see how badly the peasants are being treated and go to their aid. But the movie also shows Kikyo who is on the inside, also switching over to do the right thing.
This movie was very well done, and beautifully filmed. It could easily have been called "The Three Righteous Samurai", it all just depends on your point of view.