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Three Outlaw Samurai (1964) (review)
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The Criterion Collection’s all new high-definition transfer of Gosha Hideo’s directorial debut, Three Outlaw Samurai (Sanbiki no samurai, 1964), was “created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35mm print struck from the original negative,” and the resulting Blu-ray is nothing short of a revelation. Previously, the only available English-friendly version of this film was a poorly transferred, letterboxed, Hong Kong DVD. Criterion’s all new high-definition transfer sports a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that presents the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The only supplemental feature on this region-A “locked” disc is the film’s original theatrical trailer, which is in comparatively rougher condition than the feature and provides a point of comparison for the restoration efforts on this film. Also included is an accompanying booklet featuring an insightful essay on the film by critic Bilge Ebiri.

Three Outlaw Samurai is an excellent introduction to the work of Gosha Hideo. Although not as well known in the United States as other high-profile Japanese directors, such as Kurosawa Akira or Okamoto Kihachi (Sword of Doom, 1966; Kill!, 1968), who also produced samurai and period genre films, Gosha is far from unknown. Over the past two decades, his films have been screened at retrospectives, and several of his films, including Sword of the Beast (1965), Goyokin (1969), and Onimasa (1982), have been released on various home video formats. Despite a measure of journalistic and fan interest in his films, the general dearth of scholarly work on Gosha has likely contributed to his relative obscurity in the West.

What writing there is in English on Gosha tends to focus on his period films, frequently comparing them to the westerns of Budd Boetticher, Sam Peckinpah, or Anthony Mann, for their unostentatious yet professional production values and their meditations on violence as a social malaise. Gosha established a reputation as a reliable journeyman director soon after entering Fuji Television in 1957 as a cub reporter, years before becoming a producer and director in the documentary division. Television enabled Gosha to hone his skills within the breakneck pace of series television while familiarizing himself with nearly every facet of the industry. He wrote, produced, and directed everything from such popular action series as Detective and Jekyll and Hyde to news report-age and even children’s programming.

Beginning as a popular television series in 1963, Three Outlaw Samurai ran for six seasons before being revived as New Three Outlaw Samurai in 1970 for a seventh season. The success of the TV program’s first year convinced Shochiku Studios to opt to green-light a feature film version to be directed by Gosha with most of the same cast and crew from the TV series. The first three seasons of the series were shot on videotape and, owing to poor storage conditions, are now believed to be lost. Criterion’s Blu-ray of this 1964 feature film version is now the only way for modern audiences to obtain some sense of the style and tone of the early seasons.

Set in the early 1800s during the decline of the feudal era, the film tells the story of Shiba (Tanba Tetsuro of Pigs and Battleships, You Only Live Twice), a disheveled masterless samurai (ronin), who happens to encounter three farmers who have kidnapped the daughter of a local magistrate in a desperate bid to force negotiations to reduce the amount of their crushing taxes. With an official visit from the provincial governor only days away, the magistrate is anxious to quell any hint of local unrest. Choosing not to involve his own men, the magistrate hires hungry ronin to return his captured daughter and kill the rebel farmers. One such ronin is Sakura (Nagato Isamu), a master of the lance and a former peasant, who experiences an epiphany during his duel with Shiba and promptly switches sides.

Gosha’s compositions enhance his character’s complex motivations during action sequences in part by staging them within windowpanes, panel screens, and other geometric configurations that utilize nature and architecture to visualize alliances and divisions. Criterion’s restoration enhances the viewer’s capacity to appreciate Gosha’s style, and...

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