Although Japanese filmmaker Hideo Gosha (1929-1992) is not as familiar with Western audiences as, say, Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998), he was a master of the craft. Three Outlaw Samurai (1964) was his feature debut, and the new Criterion Collection edition presents it in outstanding form. Three Outlaw Samurai is not only full of great action, but the basic “good vs. evil” storyline is turned on its head repeatedly. It remains a very daring piece of work, and keeps the viewer guessing all the up to the end.
The genre is called chanbara (sword-fighting), and it is a refreshingly different approach altogether. The most obvious comparison for Americans would be westerns, with swords replacing guns. Then there are the almost mystical Samurai, who are able to take on ten, (or twenty) men, and dispatch them within a matter of seconds.
Three Outlaw Samurai was a popular Japanese television program at the time. It featured the title characters basically roaming the countryside, and “righting the wrongs” they encountered. The film is a prequel, telling the story of how these wandering heroes first came together. It is a fascinating tale.
The film begins with the ronin Sakon Shiba (Tetsuro Tamba) hearing the cries of a woman from inside an old mill. When he goes in to investigate, he discovers that she is the daughter of the local magistrate, who is being held captive by three peasants to force the magistrate to listen to their demands. Shiba’s initial reaction was to free her, but when he hears the peasants’ plight, and realizes that they have not harmed her, he sides with them.
Meanwhile the magistrate is desperate not only to secure his daughter’s release, but to save face as well. He hires a number of men to storm the old farmhouse, all of whom Shiba easily deals with. Things become much more complex when the magistrate hires two Samurai to deal with Shiba. This is where torture, deception, and the Samurai code of honor comes into play, and is a very compelling story.
There are no real bonus features besides the trailer to speak of, although the black and white, high definition digital restoration is certainly notable. There is also an insightful essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri included in the accompanying booklet. For anyone curious about other truly gifted Japanese filmmakers (besides Kurosawa) — or, for that matter, great action films — Three Outlaw Samurai is recommended.