Having stumbled upon a farmhouse to find three peasants holding a young woman at knifepoint, wandering samurai, Shiba (Tetsurô Tanba), asks rather bizarrely for a first line of enquiry whether the men have raped her. They explain that they haven’t. In fact, she is the local magistrate’s daughter and they are holding her to ransom as an entreaty to the magistrate to listen to their grievances.
The world of Three Outlaw Samurai is a bleak and cynical one. A world where the first question one asks upon seeing a female hostage is whether she has been raped yet. Shiba’s question threatens a traditional hero response to save the damsel in distress, but he quickly takes sides with the beleaguered peasants.
It is a film about loyalty, or more specifically, about the seemingly deficient amount of it going around. The magistrate’s right hand man, Kikyo (Mikijirô Hira), is loyal to no one but himself – refusing to fight for, well, anything; promises made ‘between samurai’ are broken; and hired samurai tasked with murdering defenceless peasants are double-crossed themselves.
For a samurai film, Hideo Gosha refrains from incorporating fight scenes too often, but the ones that are there are well done. It can be taken for granted sometimes, what with the prevailing action sequence technique of shaking the camera uncontrollably and by-the-millisecond cuts, how effective simple camera movements can be – Gosha allows the camera to track back and forth gracefully while the carnage ensues.
Three Outlaw Samurai is a very pretty film and some the credit for unlocking this must go to Criterion for their absolutely wonderful restoration – it looks like a film that could have been made yesterday. Close-ups are especially impressive with every bead of sweat and every pore clearly visible. Gosha’s keen eye for framing and his beautiful high contrast black and white photography are made even more evident with this high-definition transfer.
A thrilling and incredibly entertaining samurai chamber film – essential for fans of the genre. (8)