It’s kind of funny, as I sat watching Three Outlaw Samurai, I cold not help but feel like I as watching a spaghetti western. In particular, this film has a feel similar to Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. One might even suggest that this was influenced by the classic western, that is until you realize that this came out before Leone’s film (1964 versus 1966). Makes you wonder just who was influencing whom; it feels a lot like directors such as Leone, Akira Kurosawa, and with this film Hideo Gosho, that they were almost working together and finding similar paths through their influences.
Three Outlaw Samurai was co-writer/director Hideo Gosho’s first feature, but it feels as if it were directed by a much more seasoned filmmaker. This is a testament to the sure handedness that he displays with the material. The approach is restrained yet raw. The story is allowed to develop organically out of the characters actions and motivations, as opposed to having characters actions dictated out of necessity to the story. At times it feels as if the were unsure of what the outcome was going to be, not out of laziness but of letting things unfold as they will. It is simplistic and exhilarating.
The story opens with a rogue samurai, Shiba (Tetsura Tanbo), coming across a shack where three peasants have kidnapped the daughter (Miyuki Kuwano) of the local magistrate. Their intention is not so much to hurt her as to use her as a bargaining chip to improve the lives of the locals. You see, the magistrate is not a nice guy and the peasants are starving and in definite need of some sort of help.
Well, Shiba sees their plight and, not having a real reason to care, decides to sit back and watch things play out. When the magistrate arrives, Shiba sees that he is not a very nice fellow and he throws his lot in with the peasants. He even goes so far as to offer himself in place of the peasants to save them from punishment.
Things do not go quote as planned and Shiba finds himself at odds with the magistrate. Fortunately, he does not end up alone, I mean the title is Three Outlaw Samurai, after all. He is joined by Sakura (Isamu Nagato), a fellow rogue samurai who was hired by the magistrate to eliminate the peasant embarrassment. He realizes he is on the wrong side and switches. Then there is Kikyo (Mikijiro Hira), another samurai in the employ of the magistrate. He is just using the magistrate for what he can and could not care less about the fight. However, he does see something he likes in Shiba and joins him. These three samurai ultimately ace off with the magistrate’s forces in a climactic final battle.
Three Outlaw Samuai could be seen as just an exercise in the action genre, but there is more going on here. You have some interesting and flawed characters, heroes who are no saints choosing to band together in the face of something they see as wrong. That may sound like a cliche, but you need to see it before passing judgment.
The film feels very real. The situations ring true with authenticity, a statement I have no way of backing up. Still, when I watch it, I cannot help but feel the reality of it. The action has a messy feel to it: it is visceral, quick, and does not feel at all staged. Again, all I can really say is to watch it.
Audio/Video. As is the Criterion tradition, the film is presented beautifully in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The film was shot in black and white and has made the transition to high definition in fantastic fashion. The film shows no age and there are no digital issues to be found. The black and white is highly detailed and the shadows look just great. The fight in the whorehouse looks really good with the use of shadow throughout. Overall, this is a really great looking black and white transfer.
Audio is presented in monaural Japanese. While it is not the immersive track of a modern made movie, it is always involving. The dialogue is crisp and well realized and there is plenty of room for the sound effects and music to play in.
Extras. The original trailer and a booklet featuring an essay on the film is included.
Bottomline. I think I enjoyed this movie more than I was expecting to. It is involving, violent, thrilling, and captivating It is a very nicely realized film that holds up. It is definitely one to enjoy.