It's been a long time since we first saw Three Outlaw Samurai (1964) - I had forgotten almost everything about it and now I wonder if we actually saw something different.
It's directed by Hideo Gosha, so it's no surprise that it starts out with a shot of feet walking through the mud and reeds. They belong to wandering samurai Tetsuro Tanba. He spots an expensive hairpin when approaching a farmhouse. Inside, he finds some peasants have kidnapped the magistrate's daughter and are holding her until he hears their grievances. Tanba decides it's none of his business, tells them he's going to take a nap and they can get on with it.
The scene is pretty shocking. The peasants have the young woman in bondage, tied to a post with a sword to her neck. Our hero decides this is just one of those things. But when the magistrate's thugs come, he helps the peasants, mainly by reminding them to keep the hostage close. So maybe he isn't completely neutral.
Another of our samurai is Mikijiro Hira, who hangs around the magistrate's HQ, mostly drinking. Putting down the peasant rebellion is beneath him. He's the nihilistic violent enforcer we see in Westerns and samurai films. The third is Isamu Nagato, the sloppy, chubby type. He is attacked while pissing on the roadside and quickly dispatches his attacker. This ties him into the peasants' fight.
This movie appears to be a "prequel" to a Japanese TV series, and I think that's what we watched, not the movie. It stars the same three samurai characters - the ascetic, detached, honorable one, the drunken, sly one, and the plump, goofy one. There isn't much online about this series, but we remember the three samurai as being named Momiji (Maple), Kiku (Chrysanthemum), and Sakura (Cherryblossom) - silly names for such rough characters. We loved Sakura, the chubby one, which we had forgotten until we saw this movie. His weapon of choice is the spear - which makes sense for a guy who likes to keep a little distance between himself and his opponent. Now, the spear is my favorite weapon.
Also, the episode we saw ended with Momiji cleaving someone head to crotch in a duel, with the corpse falling dead in two pieces, left and right, which is pretty awesome for a 60s tv show.
In conclusion, the Japanese title is Sanbiki no Samurai. Sanbiki is the number three, but only used for counting animals. So the title is really something more like "Pack of Three Samurai".