Home Video Hovel- Three Outlaw Samurai
Hideo Gosha’s Three Outlaw Samurai, recently released on DVD and Blu Ray by Criterion, is, in many ways, exactly what most people look for in a movie. It has clearly drawn characters, a simple story, effective action, and a brisk running time. There is something exciting about that to me.
For all that we critics talk about being invigorated by the complexity of film, it is sometimes just as energizing about a film that knows what it wants to do and just does it. There are themes of honor, friendship, and loyalty in Three Outlaw Samurai, but it is first and foremost a simple action movie. And it achieves that goal.
The story starts with Shiba, a wandering Samurai who happens upon a dangerous development. Several peasants are holed up in a mill with the daughter of a ruthless magistrate as their captive. The conditions are terrible across the countryside; the peasants are going hungry. They’ve petitioned the magistrate to do something, but he hasn’t listened. And so it has come to this. Perhaps with his daughter in danger, he’ll actually hear them out.
Shiba finds himself drawn into the conflict, along with another samurai, the shaggy Sakura, who has been hired to kill by the magistrate to kill the peasants. However, upon meeting Shiba and sizing up the situation, Sakura switches sides. These two men make very formidable opponents and manage to fend off the magistrate’s forces.
Throughout the film, we get glimpses of Kikyo, the magistrate’s chief security officer, of sorts. While Kikyo works for the magistrate, he doesn’t particularly like him. So he holds himself back from the proceedings, weighing his options. He is a fascinating character. He seems to lack the sense of honor and duty that the other samurai have. He has no loyalty either to the peasants or the magistrate. He seems strangely bemused by it all. Nevertheless, by end of the film, he has joined Shiba and Sakura. Individually, each samurai is very dangerous. Together, they are virtually indestructible.
This movie was marvelous and surprisingly gripping. It was hard for me to believe that it was Hideo Gosha’s first feature film. He directs with a sure hand, particularly the action. Unlike modern action films, either foreign or domestic, there is a messiness to Three Outlaw Samurai. Not the kind that comes from a disorganized filmmaker, but rather the messiness of battle. The fight sequences don’t have the sterile polish of many action films, which are often so choreographed that they lose all suspense. The action here actually feels as though these characters are fighting. They have not agreed upon who is going to win and how; everybody is just fighting for their lives, breathlessly anticipating that unexpected slice to the gut. The stakes are high in these fights and we are actually allowed to see worry on the faces of the characters.
Another element that I found fascinating was the way in which the magistrate is presented. He is just an evil bastard. And everyone knows it. Of course, it makes sense for the peasants not to like him; he is not providing for them. The samurai don’t like him because he is dishonorable. But, as the film goes on, we come to realize that nobody likes him. When we see the way Kikyo talks to him, we know it’s just a matter of time before he jumps ship. The magistrate’s hired goons regularly talk back to him. Even his own daughter has a hard time supporting him. Of course it follows that nobody likes him because he has done such terrible things. But one wonders if he has ever really been liked. Perhaps if he had felt more accepted by people, he wouldn’t be so awful.
The film has a beautiful visual aesthetic. Most of the action takes place in the forest, where the trees cast foreboding shadows and any sound can give you away. The film is rich with detail, shot in beautiful, sharp black and white. The Blu Ray really brings out the details of our characters’ surroundings. There is a wildness to it all, while also seeming at times very tranquil and ethereal.
Surprisingly, the Criterion doesn’t really offer anything, as far as extras. It comes with a booklet with an informative essay by New York magazine film critic Bilge Ebiri, detailing the cynicism of Hideo Gosha. The essay is very interesting, but I found myself wishing that there were more special features for this wonderful movie.
Ultimately, Three Outlaw Samurai is an immensely satisfying film. It feels more organic and vital than other action films, even while being pared down to its bare essentials.