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"Not bad for stray dogs."
on 9 December 2012
Hideo Gosha's Three Outlaw Samurai is a fantastically cynical anti-samurai movie that has no truck with notions of codes of honor or nobless oblige, its heroes changing sides to regain their honour, whores buying and selling other whores, its villain not only breaking his word but constantly hiring new mercenaries to kill whichever previous batch of mercenaries he's just hired to save paying them. The closest to an idealist among them is Tetsuro Tamba, a vagabond ronin who literally stumbles into a kidnapping plot when looking for a place to spend the night, only to find three local peasants are holding the corrupt local magistrate's spoilt daughter in the futile hope of getting him to grant reforms. But rather than come to her rescue or strike a blow for justice and throw in his luck with the peasants, he simply stays on the sidelines, offering the odd bit of advice but more interested in getting a good night's sleep than righting wrongs. Of course it's only a matter of time before he is reluctantly drawn to their side, and slightly longer before he's joined by Isamu Nagatu's country bumpkin ronin and Mikihiro Hira's stylish cynic who is sponging off the magistrate.
If justice finally prevails it's more due to impatience and personal grudges than any sense of honor: Gosha's ferociously pitiless vision of feudal Japan makes Kurosawa's look like commercials for the status quo. Unlike the Seven Samurai or the later Magnificent Seven, here it's not the farmers who win and everybody else loses, it's the samurai who survive leaving the farmers no better off despite their best efforts because the peasants ultimately can't bring themselves to stand up for themselves even when the obstacles are removed. Not that the ronin are much better - they're only one small step above the swords for hire they fight and more akin to animals rooting around for scraps in a world with only passing use for them (one rival swordsman even describes them as stray dogs)
The tight 93 minute running time does mean there are a couple of abrupt gaps in the narrative that it probably owes to its origins as a spin-off from a long-running popular TV series Gosha developed, but they're minor problems. Gosha's direction is wonderfully cinematic and visually impressive without being over elaborate. The action scenes are well handled with the blood flowing like bottles of black ink - it's a black and white film, and one that shows how well matched CinemaScope and monochrome can be in the right hands. Terrific stuff, and Criterion's transfer is good enough to do it justice even if it's not quite outstanding. The only extras on Criterion's region A-locked Bluray are the customary detailed booklet with a good essay on the film by Bilge Ebiri and the original theatrical trailer with much behind the scenes footage trumpeting Gosha as a major arrival on the big screen. They weren't wrong.