Three Outlaw Samurai (Sanbiki no samurai)

Director: Hideo Gosha
Screenplay: Keiichi Abe, Hideo Gosha, Eizaburo Shiba
Stars: Tetsurô Tanba (Sakon Shiba), Isamu Nagato (Kyôjûrô Sakura), Mikijiro Hira (Einosuke Kikyô), Miyuki Kuwano (Aya), Yoshiko Kayama (Oyasu), Kyoko Aoi (Omitsu), Kamatari Fujiwara (Jinbê), Tatsuya Ishiguro (Uzaemon Matsushita), Jun Tatara (Yasugorô), Toshie Kimura (Oine), Yôko Mihara (Omaki)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1964
Country: Japan
Three Outlaw Samurai Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Three Outlaw SamuraiHideo Gosha’s directorial debut Three Outlaw Samurai (Sanbiki no samurai) is actually a prequel to the chanbara television series of the same name, which had completed its first season when the film was released. This strategy of releasing a feature film prequel in the midst of a concurrently running television series was unique in its time, and is still not widely used today despite the prevalence of transmedia. This is not surprising given that Gosha was a unique filmmaker. After serving in the Japanese navy, he started a career in television as a reporter before moving behind the camera, after which he became one of the first Japanese television producer/directors to cross over into feature filmmaking (he would go on to direct 24 films over the ensuing three decades). Once immersed in the world of cinema, he developed into an intriguing auteur who brought a dark, cynical perspective to the samurai film, which had achieved new heights of popularity in the postwar years due to the success of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961), two films that heavily prefigure the action in Gosha’s debut.

For Japanese viewers at the time, the three central characters in the film were familiar from a season’s worth of TV episodes (all of which are now, sadly, lost), so Gosha and his co-screenwriters Keiichi Abe and Eizaburo Shiba use little time for introductions and exposition. Instead, the film begins with Sakon Shiba (Tetsurô Tanba), a wandering ronin (masterless samurai), using a kanzashi (woman’s hairpin) he found on the ground to determine the direction in which he will walk (much like Toshiro Mifune’s Sanjuro did in Yojimbo). Taking shelter in a barn, he discovers three peasants who have kidnapped Aya (Miyuki Kuwano), the daughter of Uzaemon Matsushita (Tatsuya Ishiguro), the local magistrate who has refused to hear the peasants’ pleas. Starving and desperate, they have turned to kidnapping as the only means of getting Matsushita’s attention, although Shiba quickly deduces that they are hopelessly incompetent in their endeavors.

Shiba’s discovery of the kidnapping is the first of the film’s many reversals of expectations, as a viewer steeped in the chanbara genre would expect that the kidnappers are villains and that Shiba, the noble samurai, would rescue the damsel in distress. Instead, we realize that the peasants, while engaging in criminal, potentially violent behavior, are the victims, as does Shiba, who sleeps the night in the barn with them and then aids them the next day when Matsushita, who is desperate to resolve the situation before his lord arrives later that week, sends in his warriors to kill the peasant and free his daughter. When that attempt fails, Matsushita begins assembling a rogue’s gallery of ronin who are willing to kill the peasants for the right price, which is just one of many jabs that Gosha takes at the idealized nobility of the samurai. Shiba is certainly a noble, upright hero, someone who is willing to risk his life for a cause he deems just, but the rest of the samurai in the film tend to be greedy, amoral, or simply opportunistic.

Shiba is eventually joined in his protection of the peasants by Kyôjûrô Sakura (Isamu Nagato), a somewhat portly samurai who is brought out of prison to work for Matsushita but eventually joins Shiba when he learns of the peasants’ circumstances, and Einosuke Kikyô (Mikijiro Hira), Matsushita’s righthand warrior who at first refuses to get involved because he deems killing peasants beneath his abilities and later asserts that he doesn’t want to join them because he enjoys the perks of working for Matsushita too much. The fact that Kikyô eventually changes sides suggests that Gosha sees some possibility of redemption in a world that is otherwise blackened with self-interest and cruelty, but the film otherwise clings tightly to a cynical worldview that contrasts sharply with Kurosawa’s more popular and well-known samurai films. Nevertheless, Gosha’s film, especially for a feature debut, is duly impressive in both its strong, unadorned narrative pacing and its rich cinematography, which makes ample use of the ’Scope aspect ratio and the deep focus potential of the black-and-white image. Even though much of Three Outlaw Samurai is cribbed from other, arguably superior films, it maintains its own powerful voice and, more importantly, paved the trail that Gosha would spend the next 30 years travelling.

Three Outlaw Samurai Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Three Outlaw Samurai is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio2.35:1
AudioJapanese Linear PCM 1.0 moanural
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Essay by critic Bilge Ebiri
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateFebruary 14, 2012

    Criterion’s new high-definition transfer of Three Outlaw Samurai, which marks the film’s first release in Region 1, was made from a 35mm print struck from the original camera negative and digitally restored. Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the image looks great throughout, with excellent grayscale, contrast, and fine detail. The film is fairly dark at times, but black levels hold up very nicely in maintaining shadow detail in all but the darkest portions of the frame. There are few if any signs of age or damage to suggest that the film is nearly 50 years old. The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack print and digitally restored, sound fine, with decent clarity and virtually no aural hiss or other aural artifacts.
    The only supplement on the disc is the original theatrical trailer, which is a shame since this film, along with most of Hideo Gosha’s other work, is largely unknown in the U.S.

    Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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