If you've seen Akira Kurosawa's chambara epics (Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Seven Samurai, and The Hidden Fortress), it's impossible not to see them during the first reel or so of Hideo Gosha's Three Outlaw Samurai, which seems, at first blush, to be a composite of Kurosawa's sword-fighting actioners. The first few minutes are almost a note-perfect remake of the opening minutes of both Sanjuro and Yojimbo, as footloose, fancy free, and decidedly Mifune-esque ronin Shiba (Tetsurô Tanba) happens upon a couple of peasants, hip-deep in some skirmish against provincial corruption. In seconds he's calling the shots between yawns, explaining their own situation and shortcomings, his observations extracted from his weary worldview.
Relative to Kurosawa's elaborate, proto-Spielbergian precision, Gosha is a cunning pictorialist, but in a rather quiet way. The most conspicuous "look at me" moment in that regard is a cut between a defeated attacker collapsing against a water wheel, and the same water wheel as viewed from the outside. Shot lengths are consistently moderate: Gosha enjoys depicting, in single takes, the dance of brawling thugs, soldiers, and samurai warriors of varying skill levels, but he also likes to keep things moving. Three Outlaw Samurai may not inspire much in the way of superlatives, but that's because Gosha appears to have taken a much more sensational chambara epic and lopped off both the hills and the valleys. The film never seems rushed, but it scarcely appears to stand still for very long, either; the peasants-versus-corrupt-officials drama isn't really explained, but it's hardly John le Carré, and a little deduction goes a long way. Gosha has a way of framing even the most important characters as if they were just part of the background—but at the other extreme, it's not exactly Le Quattro Volte either. The principals aren't outlined with great, clear emphasis (except Shiba), and they don't really come together until 10 minutes from the end.
On the whole, Gosha's approach, which might be described as meticulous moderation, works to give the viewer a kind of catch-as-catch-can experience with regard to following the unfolding drama, but not to the degree that it's been abstracted into Suzuki-esque shards, void of classical meaning. What's brought to the fore is a pleasingly unassuming elegance of Scope compositions, and a satisfying narrative resolution that just kind of coalesces, like a light fog, a few moments before the final frames roll past.
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The important visual aspects of Hideo Gosha's direction seem to involve the tight architecture of the studio-built interiors: lots of barns, chambers, and various other locales of conspiracy and entrenchment. Loads of shadows, shot through with carefully pruned sunlight and candlelight. It's a cliché to note that it's a cliché to note that Criterion has once again done a bang-up job with their 1080p transfer and uncompressed monaural track, but what are you going to do, that's what they're known for. You'll feel like you're attending the gala debut of a restoration print at a Gosha retro, right in your home.
Surprisingly for a film that's made the full-on Criterion cut, there's nothing here but a theatrical trailer. You might go so far as to ask why Three Outlaw Samurai wasn't simply lumped in with the "Rebel Samurai" box set that was released in 2005; that set already included Gosha's Sword of the Beast.
Swell transfer work as usual, but Criterion could have done a bit more—as in, anything at all—to doll up Hideo Gosha's tight little chambara.