Director: Hideo Gosha
Screenplay: Keiichi Abe, Hideo Gosha, Eizaburo Shiba, Gin’ichi Kishimoto (uncredited)
Starring: Tetsurô Tanba, Isamu Nagato, Mikijirô Hira, Miyuki Kuwano, Yoshiko Kayama, Hisashi Igawa, Kyôko Aoi
Running Time: 94 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Japanese director Hideo Gosha cut his teeth on TV before moving onto film, after his work impressed executives at Shochiku so much they offered him the chance to make a spin-off feature from one of his series. The series and spin-off are known in the West as Three Outlaw Samurai and the film kickstarted a near-three-decade career working largely in genre moulds, particularly samurai and yakuza movies. Gosha is quite highly regarded in Japan but never made it big in the West, despite working in genres that tend to travel well. Criterion have released a couple of his films in the US though over the years and are now adding Three Outlaw Samurai to their rapidly-growing UK Blu-ray collection.
The film begins with ronin Shiba (Tetsurô Tanba) traipsing along a muddy path before a panicked man rushes past him and towards a barn. Shiba heads over himself to see what was troubling the man and comes across a group of peasant farmers who have kidnapped their local magistrate’s (Hisashi Igawa) daughter, Aya (Miyuki Kuwano), in order to force him into meeting their demands for better working and living conditions. Shiba initially seems ready to kill the farmers and save Aya, but after he hears their story he sides with them, fending off the magistrate’s men and attempting to improve their chances of getting justice through his superior strategic planning.
The magistrate isn’t happy about this, of course, so hires mercenary ronin to help get rid of Shiba and the peasants, as well as bring back his daughter. One such masterless samurai, Sakura (Isamu Nagato), defects over to Shiba’s side once he hears the full story though, once more strengthening support for the farmers. The magistrate persists, however, and double-crosses Shiba after he offers to take a heavy beating for the whole group once Aya is returned. The depths of treachery the magistrate will sink to also gradually break down the resolve of one of his own samurai warriors, Kikyô (Mikijirô Hira).
This is the film in a nutshell, but there are quite a few extra characters and narrative threads I’ve ignored to keep my review concise(ish). It’s fairly complex for the genre, yet remains easy enough to follow and still crams in plenty of action. It almost puts the Lone Wolf and Cub films to shame for the amount of on-screen violence, though the blood doesn’t spray around quite as wildly here. The fights can be pretty rough and visceral too. There are well-choreographed sword duels, as is to be expected from the genre, but also a lot of scrabbling around in the dirt and a vicious woman-on-woman scuffle that will make you wince.
The film also has a more complex web of honour, morals and allegiance than appears at first glance. A large number of characters swap sides, even against family, as they learn the truth about where they stand or who they’re standing for. A nice touch towards the end even sees our initially powerful villain grovelling to his superior and getting whipped for his incompetence. The conclusion of the main plot thread concerning the villagers’ petition is also given a surprising twist that shatters the sense of honour the samurai were looking for by supporting their cause.
Also impressive is the film’s sense of style and technique. It’s a remarkably well-crafted film for a debut. Shots are carefully and cleverly composed, making great use of depth and movement, but Gosha never lets the film feel too staged or static, breaking out into mayhem in many of the aforementioned action sequences, without losing track of what’s happening. There’s some atmospheric lighting used in places too, particularly when Shiba is beaten in a shadowy prison.
One of the most impressive sequences is a fight scene done largely in a long take that tracks across a house as the battle moves from room to room, depicted in silhouettes behind a screen at one point and culminating in the samurai pushing right towards the camera.
There’s plenty of drama injected into proceedings too, preventing the film from becoming a repetitive array of mindless action. Although the female characters aren’t as well-drawn as the male ones, there are some interesting relationships formed. Sakura is given a compelling moral dilemma to deal with too, as he accidentally kills one of the peasants shortly before defecting to their side and can’t bring himself to admit the fact to the dead man’s wife after she sings his praises and forms a bond with him.
Three Outlaw Samurai is a truly superb example of a genre I adore. It might seem a little generic at first glance, borrowing a few cues from Yojimbo in particular, but it soon develops its own personality and depth as it goes on. Regardless of originality, it’s thrillingly paced, immensely entertaining and stylishly directed. It comes highly recommended to anyone with an interest in samurai movies and I’m now eager to dig deeper into Gosha’s work.
Three Outlaw Samurai is out on 20th July on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The picture and sound quality are first class, as is to be expected from the label.
It’s a pretty threadbare package though, unfortunately:
– High-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
– New English subtitle translation
– PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri
– New cover by Greg Ruth
It’s a real shame there aren’t any special features, as the film is so good. I found the essay online though, and that provides an interesting analysis of the film and a little background information about the director.