Three Outlaw Samurai

New on DVD

Spring Screening

Three Outlaw Samurai

Criterion, $29.95

Often overlooked, Hideo Gosha's 1964 debut acted as a prequel of sorts to the long-running Japanese television series of the same name. A bloody good (in every way) example of the much-mined strata of Japanese swords and samurai pictures known collectively as chanbara, Three Outlaw Samurai could be construed as kin to Akira Kurosawa's samurai outings, but Gosha is less interested in the classical elements of the genre than he is in painting a portrait of warriors caught in the grip of blind loyalty, honor collapsing into dishonor, and a sort of personal moral maelstrom which no one survives fully intact.

The director's grim worldview and inherent, artistic mistrust of authority is evident in the opening scene, which introduces wandering ronin Sakon Shiba (Tetsurô Tanba) who, sauntering down a dusty rural road, stumbles into a kidnapping. The kidnappee turns out to be the local magistrate's daughter, and the three peasants holding her hostage have, as is quickly revealed, a legitimate beef: The haughty magistrate in question refuses to meet with them so that they may air their grievances. At Shiba's back is the second titular samurai, Kikyô (Mikijiro Hira), and then the third, Sakura (Isamu Nagato), currently imprisoned by the magistrate, who agrees to go kill the offending villagers in return for his freedom. Once the battle commences, however, allegiances become utterly porous, even meaningless, and a bloodbath ensues.

What's great about Gosha's film isn't only the director's remarkable compositions and exquisitely timed fight choreography – every single action director in Hollywood could learn a thing or 20 from Gosha's economical but emotionally unsparing set-pieces – but also his steadfast nihilism that borders on the existential. The title says it all: three blind men, their notions of honor and loyalty as fluid as the sprays of blood that fly from the razored edges of their Bushido blades, neither heroes nor antiheroes, presumably doomed to wander the land forever trapped by crumbling codes that no longer function as they once did.

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