Three Outlaw Samurai (Criterion)

Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Ratings (out of five): ****

In Hideo’s Gosha’s Three Outlaw Samurai, the title characters aid peasants in their struggle against corrupt overlords. While this plot synopsis (and even the title of the film) suggests a sort of miniature version of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the parallel is misleading. Both films are rousing adventures and represent the pinnacle of the chambara/samurai genre. But, for all of its swordplay and suspense, Gosha’s film is a bitter depiction of how evil can prevail even when good men do something to prevent it.

The film initially follows the itinerant Sakon Shiba (Tetsuro Tamba), a samurai without a master seeking his meager fortune in a war-torn, feudal society. The not-so-subtle opening shot is Shiba’s foot slipping and sinking calve-deep into a mud puddle.

This on-the-nose metaphor soon pays off; Shiba’s path leads him to a slough of trouble. He discovers a shack where three of the locals have kidnapped the magistrate’s daughter and are holding her as a bargaining chip in their plea for reform. The magistrate’s oppressive rule has starved the peasantry into desperation.

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It isn’t long before the magistrate’s bellicosity gets under cynical Shiba’s skin and he begins fighting for the peasants’ lost cause. He’s joined by a fellow rogue warrior, Sakura (Isamu Nagato), who is initially hired by the magistrate but switches sides once he realizes that the villagers are starving under the ruthless whims of a plutocrat. Eventually, they two men become a troika when a sneering courtesan of the magistrate -- Kikyo (Mikijiro Hira) – develops a conscience after faced with a particularly brutal act by the magistrate’s men.

This shifting loyalty is one of the most striking things about Three Outlaw Samurai; throughout the film’s tightly pace ninety-minute running time, the characters are called to reevaluate and revise their missions. Gosha’s film is very similar in theme to Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter – the reaction of dedicated men to the death of honor in a society once defined by this ideal. Gosha’s samurai cling to their loyalties for as long as they can, building to a devastating denouement that’s more akin to a Bresson film than your run-of-the-mill action film.

To that point, there’s nothing rote about the fight scenes. They manage to be thrilling while still being choreographed in a way that’s realistic to the point of being almost awkward and fumbling. The initial showdown in the peasant’s cramped hideout borders on the humorous (it immediately conjured memories of Raising Arizona’s double-wide brawl between Nic Cage and the kidnappers). Gosha’s set pieces are effortlessly edited and stand in stark contrast to the lazy, information overload approach to most modern action films.

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Gosha’s panache for action didn’t emerge overnight; Three Outlaw Samurai spun from a Japanese television series that ran for six seasons. Gosha presided over much of the show’s early episodes before starting a film career marked by watershed samurai films such as Sword of the Beast and Goyokin. The end of Three Outlaw Samurai certainly begs for further adventures but, since the show is not yet available on DVD, this remarkable film will suffice. Gosha’s mini masterpiece is a shining example of a film that transcends it’s genre limitations while defining them.

The remastered print is breathtaking; there’s nary a scratch or spot to blight Tadashi Sakai’s high gorgeous black-and-white photography. The denoised, enhanced soundtrack revitalizes a film that’s previously languished in scratchy prints on import-only DVDs. Another revelatory release from Criterion.

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