Judge Patrick Rogers is pretty sure combining the words "outlaw" and "samurai" leads to the world's most badass phrase.
"The peasants risked their lives. A samurai can do no less."
Hideo Gosha is one of the more famous Japanese directors to have worked within the chanbara and yakuza genres. The fact he's almost unheard of in the West is probably because his films are incredibly nihilistic and bleak affairs that expose the seedy underbelly of human nature; think along the lines of Akira Kurosawa's later works like Kagemusha and Ran dialed up to 11. This anonymity surprises me, because how does a film called Sword of the Beast, Gosha's 1965 masterpiece, not gain a lot of attention? Released the year prior, Three Outlaw Samurai is Gosha's first film after a successful run in television. While it's not quite as good as Sword of the Beast, nor as masterfully contemplative as Goyokin, it still lays the thematic groundwork for a very complex and consumed auteur.
Facts of the Case
Sakon Shiba (Tetsurô Tamba, Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky) is a noble samurai in a den of thieves who does not see class or social standing, only justice and honor. As he stumbles across a group of peasants holding the daughter of a magistrate for ransom, he doesn't save the nubile young lady but helps the peasants in their quest for justice. This action brings down the ire of the magistrate (Hisashi Igawa, Dodesukaden) who wants to fight fire with fire by unleashing the samurai currently held in his cells on the small farmhouse housing these renegades. Among them is Kyojuro Sakura (Isamu Nagato, Samurai From Nowhere), a fat and jovial samurai who, when confronted by Shiba and told of what the peasants are fighting for, decides to join their cause. The magistrate's personal bodyguard, Einosuke Kikyo (Mikijiro Hira, 13 Assassins) feels that killing peasants is beneath his skill level and the magistrate himself is nothing more than a purse with deep pockets. He's a man seemingly belched from the belly of the underworld who calls no side his own. All three samurai will come face to face with what defines them as men, be it revenge or loyalty, and be pushed to their limits in a clash of steel tempered with blood.
While these characters are largely archetypes, their motivations and relationships are complex and atypical of the genre, which is what gives the film such crackling energy. These ferociously passionate actors play off one another in an incredible fusion of action and stark dialogue that the beauty of its simplicity dominates the frame. Gosha's penchant for deconstructing the tropes of the samurai film and injecting them with visceral bleakness are found in the fluid introductions of his characters. To play on our expectations, Gosha gives us characters who go against the grain in a world of abominable men, devilish women, and selfish aims. This is not Kurosawa's world where the good always stand up for the downtrodden, or where the innate humanity of our world ultimately triumphs over evil. Gosha's world is a murky haven of ambivalence where loyalty only runs as deep as the aims of the individual. Three Outlaw Samurai is a refreshing take on a genre that often feels stale.
The most striking aspect of Three Outlaw Samurai is Tadashi Sakai's (Hunter in the Dark) gorgeous cinematography which is draped in shadows and grim realism. Sakai revels in the deep lines on the faces of the characters, as well as the dirt and mire they operate in. It's no secret the 2.35:1 aspect ratio is God's frame which Sakai and Gosha use to perfection. The interplay between characters in tight spaces is immaculately stationed, Gosha smartly adding a touch of realism to the action. By putting his camera into the jaws of these skirmishes, he heightens the ferocity and the impact. Choosing not to cut away only helps highlight the masterfully choreographed swordplay.
It's no surprise then Criterion's Three Outlaw Samurai (Blu-ray) helps capture the film in all it's glory. The 2.35:1/1080p high definition transfer may not absolutely floor you with high levels of definition and clarity, but the image is still surprisingly strong. There's a strong crispness in the image, especially with the interiors, and a pitch perfect level of grain running through the entire frame. Black levels are inky, which is what you want in a film dominated by shadows, and the whites have a strong variance. Most of the dirt and damage has been scrubbed away without any trademark signs of tampering. While the LPCM 1.0 mono track lacks an obvious depth and complexity, the dialogue, sound effects, and musical score are all crisp, one never dominating the others.
Where Criterion drops the ball is in the special features. All we get is a theatrical trailer and the ubiquitous booklet. The text contains a strong essay by Bilge Ebiri titled "The Disloyal Bunch" which deconstructs the bleak universe of Gosha's film, offering a deep analysis of its characters.
A masterfully structured samurai film with characters oozing cool, Three Outlaw Samurai is as bleak and nihilistic as it is real. This near flawless entry into the chanbara genre by an amazingly complex auteur is awarded with an impressive upgrade, giving us a chance to appreciate the film in all its glory.
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