Compared to most of the classic samurai films that preceded it (among those included in the Criterion Collection, anyway), Hideo Gosha's Three Outlaw Samurai approaches the viewer with a directness and easy accessibility that might make it an even better introduction to the genre than Akira Kurosawa's magnificent and revitalizing pair of masterworks, Yojimbo and Sanjuro. The characters are clearly etched, their motivations are plain and understandable, and we know without having to think all that hard about it who the good and the bad guys are. There's little background information needed to get our bearings - no complicated digressions into the finer points of feudal Japanese history (as with Mizoguchi's The 47 Ronin or Kurosawa's Throne of Blood), nor any complicated narrative devices like the flashbacks employed in Kurosawa's Rashomon or Kobayashi's Harakiri. One can sit down and enjoy a well-crafted tale delivered with bold conviction, brief enough to incorporate it as part of a social gathering with friends (rather than dominate an entire evening like the twice-as-long Seven Samurai), with enough substance to it to reward a bit of post-viewing reflection with some illuminating insights on the frailty of organized resistance to injustice, but not so much that an immediate rewatch is required to figure out just what Gosha was trying to say. In short, Three Outlaw Samurai, especially in this crisp transfer with a discounted price due to its stripped-down presentation, is a fine choice to toss in the ol' blu-ray player for a quick and enjoyable diversion into a realm of uncomplicated action entertainment.
That simplicity comes as no surprise upon discovering that the film was actually a spin-off from a successful Japanese TV series of the same name, just one of numerous extended samurai sagas of the 1960s, the greatest of which, the Zatoichi series, is slated for a monumental release by Criterion later this year. Three Outlaw Samurai (the movie) was a prequel, as a matter of fact, decades before that term had ever been coined. The three renegade swordsmen it featured were each possessed of a particular set of character traits that set them apart from each other, providing the kind of dynamic tension that audiences enjoy in ensemble programs of this sort. Shiba was the informal, undeclared leader of the trio - virtuous, idealistic, principled, dominant, but in a modest and self-effacing way. He's the one willing to take on the pain and suffering that others might have to endure, were it not for his noble sacrifice. Sakura, a bit older and more wizened than his comrades, is the most overtly comedic of the three... rough around the edges, jocular, driven by his baser appetites and a bit dual-minded at times, but selfless and courageous when called upon to draw his weapon and come to the aide of those in need of his help. Finally, there's Kikyo, the outlaw with a more skeptical attitude, vain, taciturn and wary of being suckered into doing the dirty work of others who would take advantage of the samurai code in order to draw him into defending an unworthy cause.
Each of these wandering ronin bring useful skills to their collective task, balancing out the weaknesses and blind spots of the other two and making them a formidable fighting force on behalf of the plain folk who live hard-pressed lives beset by corrupt magistrates, roving bandits and ruthless mercenaries at any given moment. A viewer doesn't have to see any more than what's presented in this widescreen cinematic origin story to get a reasonably accurate view of what might unfold over the course of a typical hour-long episode of the Three Outlaw Samurai television program.
What sets this film apart from the TV show (presumably, since I've never seen any of the episodes, most of which are now lost to posterity) is the scale of the production and the graphic intensity of the sword battles. Of course, Kurosawa himself blazed new trails of explicit violence, especially in that memorable duel at the end of Sanjuro. Even though there's nothing quite as... demonstrative... as Sanjuro's climactic bloodbath in Three Outlaw Samurai, we're still treated to a few scenes that probably wouldn't have made it onto Japanese TV at the time (or the airwaves of any other nation on the planet in 1964.) And as indicated by the trailer below (the only extra feature included on this nearly bare-bones release), this film was indeed a milestone in the evolution of the chanbara genre:
That evolution steered the samurai flick into darker, more nihilistic territory than usual, adapting the deep-seated philosophical contempt and subversion for traditional authority systems of Harakiri to express a more generalized scorn for human greed and cowardice across the full social spectrum. For sure, the magistrate Mosuke is a nasty, thoroughly black hat villain, but after building up the rebellious peasants as owners of a righteous cause and a legitimate complaint, Gosha reveals them to be a petty assortment of weaklings who meekly refuse to make waves once the immediate cause of their oppression is too distracted by his own problems to exploit them for the time being. Contrast this dismal conclusion of Three Outlaw Samurai with the wary but ultimately heroic reinforcement of bushido valor that we find in Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy, issued roughly ten years earlier. A whole lot had happened in Japanese cinema and culture over the course of that decade, lending itself to the development of a revisionist approach to the significance of the role of the samurai in that nation's history and collective psyche - especially those highly trained warriors who suddenly found themselves alone, adrift and unaccountable to any master other than the interior character that their training and experience had cultivated over the course of their lifetime. For many young people coming of age, both then and now, these rootless wanderers, armed, dangerous and seeking a sense of purpose, provided high-gravity icons to model themselves after, even if only in their fantasies and dreams.
Next: The Killers