Three Outlaw Samurai (Criterion) (Blu-Ray)
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This first film by the legendary Hideo Gosha (Sword of the Beast) is among the most canonized chambara (sword-fighting) films. An origin-story offshoot of a Japanese television series phenomenon of the same name, Three Outlaw Samurai is a classic in its own right. In it, a wandering, seen-it-all ronin (Tetsuro Tamba) becomes entangled in the dangerous business of two other samurai (Isamu Nagato and Mikijiro Hira), hired to execute a band of peasants who have kidnapped the daughter of a corrupt magistrate. With remarkable storytelling economy and thrilling action scenes, this is an expertly mounted tale of revenge and loyalty.
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Three Outlaw Samurai begins in simple yet extravagant fashion. We see Shiba take a few steps in the mud followed by an extremely loud music cue and the title card written in Japanese Kanji. Six seconds into this chanbara film and I already know I'm going to love it. The film buys its time though as the first half of the film is mostly very talkative and swords are drawn only briefly before lengthy discussions begin once again. The storytelling is a high point as loyalty and the overall cause for all of this mayhem are always both relevant to the events taking place on screen. The cinematography is also brilliant, especially since this is the debut of Hideo Gosha. The well-choreographed and intense swordplay sequences are always captured with the most precise camera placement.
Lighting and shadows also play a big part in how the film is presented visually. The one-shot sword fight in the two-story whore house is the best example of this. Right down to the drastic lighting on Kikyo's eyes before everything goes to hell, Three Outlaw Samurai is the type of film fans of samurai, foreign, and great cinema in general dream of. There's something completely gratifying about blood presented in black and white, as well. Maybe it's because it reminds me of the Crazy 88 fight The Bride has at the tea house in Kill Bill, but the crimson liquid almost seems more gratifying in grayscale at least when it comes to older and more legendary motion pictures.
The best exchange of dialogue comes when Sakura is running across a field to support Kikyo and Shiba in the final battle. Sakura yells, "Hey Shiba! I've done you wrong! I deserve to die! Kill Me!" In the heat of battle, Shiba merely replies, "I'm busy at the moment."
While Three Outlaw Samurai may seem a bit slow at first, your patience will be rewarded. You'll become attached to the characters of Sakon Shiba, Kyojuro Sakura, and Einosuke Kikyo, get absorbed in their cause, and understand their decisions. As the swordplay and action becomes more frequent, you'll realize how truly amazing this film really is. Three Outlaw Samurai is a beautiful, well-written, and just a fantastic experience overall that is for fans of Seven Samurai, Shogun Assassin, and The Last Samurai.
Despite how fantastic Three Outlaw Samurai looks and sounds, it literally has no special features. This is a bit unusual since nearly every Criterion Collection release I've come across is usually loaded with goodies. All that's included is the theatrical trailer and a booklet with an essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri. So hopefully you weren't looking forward to this release for the special features alone.
Three Outlaw Samurai is a black and white film that's unrated and presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. It's approximately 93 minutes long, has a new English subtitle translation, and features high definition digital restoration. The film is now available on both Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray at most retail outlets and online stores.
So glad this film is getting a Criterion release and will hopefully finally get its deserved recognition by samurai movie fans in the west.
The story concerns a group of peasants who kidnap the daughter of a corrupt local official, in the hopes of attracting his attention to the plight of the poor townsfolk. Several samurai tough guys happen to be in the area, and the plot hinges on whether these samurai will decide to help the peasants. While this scenario seems quite simple on the surface -- and I suppose it is -- director Hideo Gosha handles it expertly, generating lots of suspense and sympathy for the characters.
Surprisingly, some commentators consider this film an inferior "rip-off" of Kurosawa fare like Seven Samurai. I have a couple of responses to that. First, I don't think Kurosawa really invented the samurai genre, or even the type of world-weary samurai character so often played by Toshiro Mifune (e.g., the samurai character of Tange Sazen predates Kurosawa's stuff). Also, because Three Outlaw Samurai is very short, violent, and "punchy," it has a different feel/tone from Seven Samurai and similar Kurosawa epics, so I don't think the two films really conflict or negate each other at all. I enjoy both styles quite a bit.
Meanwhile, Criterion's DVD of Three Outlaw Samurai has a very nice print that highlights the beauty of the film's black-and-white photography. (I'm kicking myself for not buying the Blu-Ray instead, but hey, I had no idea I'd like this so much!) There aren't any great special features to speak of, though the DVD comes with an essay that provides interesting details on Gosha's career and the TV show that inspired this film. So on the whole, this DVD gets my enthusiastic seal of approval.
Airing on Japan's Fuji TV from 1963 through 1969, the drama series achieved a high rating of 42%. In Japan, anything over 25% is fantastic and not only did the studio Shochiku have a hot series, the three actors Tetsuro Tanba, Isamu Nagato and Mikijiro Hira became the most popular actors because of the TV series.
And with the success of the first season, Shochiku decided to create a jidaigeki film based on the characters of the TV series and "Sambiki no Samurai" (Three Outlaw Samurai) and give Hideo Gosha the opportunity to direct his first film.
And in 1964, "Three Outlaw Samurai" was released in theaters and would become a classic samurai film in Japan which would later inspire a manga series and TV sequels that would air on TV Asahi last from 1987 through 1995 (featuring newer characters) and a final "goodbye" drama series which aired from Oct.-Dec. 1999 which would feature the return of original actor, Tetsuro Tanba.
And now, "Three Outlaw Samurai" makes its first Blu-ray and DVD appearance in North America courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
The film is the second Gosha film to be released by the Criterion Collection, the first release on DVD was Gosha's second film (and his most popular film in the west), "Sword of the Beast" (1965).
"Three Outlaw Samurai" is presented in black and white (2:35:1 aspect ratio). This 1964 film looks absolutely fantastic on Blu-ray. Not only is there a good amount of grain, there is also a good amount of detail. May it be the dirty floors of the mill or its wooden surroundings.
Closeups of the character show the sweat, grime and dirt on their faces, contrast is excellent, black levels are deep and white and gray levels are also very good. I don't think I've seen any sort of video problems or damage while watching this film, maybe a few instances of softness but other than that, this film looks fantastic. No banding, no artifacts, no problems that stuck out.
According to the Criterion Collection, the new high-definition transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35 mm print struck from the original negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI's DRS and Pixel Farm's PFClean, while Omage Systems DVNR was used for a small dirt, grain and noise reduction.
AUDIO & SUBTITLES:
"Three Outlaw Samurai" is presented in Japanese monaural LPCM 1.0. The dialogue is clear and I heard no hissing, crackles or any audio problems during my viewing.
According to the Criterion Collection, the monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm optical soundtrack print. Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube's integrated workstation.
"Three Outlaw Samurai - The Criterion Collection #596' on Blu-ray comes with a trailer.
"Three Outlaw Samurai - The Criterion Collection #596' comes with an 18-page booklet with the essay "The Disloyal Bunch" by New York Magazine writer Bilge Ebiri.
Having watched many jidageki/chambara films and dramas from Japan, this was my first time watching Hideo Gosha's "Three Outlaw Samurai". And I absolutely loved it!
Sure, there is a banality when it comes to ronin who come into help the poor from evil bandits or warlords, but what I enjoyed about this film was its enjoyable story, its characters and also its swordfighting action!
For one, you have your calm, cool and collected samurai Sakon Shiba (starring legendary actor Tetsuro Tanba) and then you have someone different with Isamu Nagato's Kyojuro Sakura, a man who can fight but also a man with a conscience. A man who helps bring humor to the film because of his demeanor. And then you have the playboy swordsman Einosuke Kikyo (played by Mikijiro Hira), doesn't want to sully his sword with the blood with peasants but yet has no qualms about having sexual encounters with a local prostitute.
While the film is quite simple when compared to Akira Kurosawa's jidaigeki films, bare in mind that "Three Outlaw Samurai" is Hideo Gosha's filmmaking debut. He obviously had magnificent company with three amazing actors who were extremely popular from the TV show, the benefit of having good writers, cinematographer and a crew. May it be the swordfight choreography, the actors performances to its sociopolitical storyline, it's a fantastic debut for Hideo Gosha and an important film that would help ignite a career with many fantastic films in his oeuvre.
As for the Blu-ray release, "Three Outlaw Samurai" looks fantastic on Blu! Wonderful contrast, picture quality looked amazing with no blemishes or problematic scenes. If anything, I wish there were more special features outside of the included trailer. I suppose that I have been spoiled by Criterion Collection releases that I tend to expect a lot in terms of special feature content but it does explain why the price is cheaper compared to other Criterion Blu-ray and DVD's.
Overall, if you are in the mood for a wonderful samurai film that isn't too deep, easily accessible and has a lot of swordfighting action, definitely give "Three Outlaw Samurai" a a chance. Definitely recommended!