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Three Outlaw Samurai

I never heard of this one until the good ol’ Criterion Collection put it out a few months ago. I was intrigued by the title, which seems to indicate that it is about a trio of samurai who are each outlaws of some kind. And it’s a well-chosen title because that is exactly what it’s about.

It’s a Japanese picture from 1964, so it’s shot in beautiful black and white. It’s the directational debut of Hideo Gosha, whose next movie SWORD OF THE BEAST was also released by Criterion. The story involves three elderly peasants who kidnap the magistrate’s daughter and keep her hostage in a mill. Shit is real bad for the 8 clans in the area and the magistrate won’t listen to their appeals so they got desperate. Some JOHN Q type shit.
You don’t know at first who the titleive three are gonna be, but the first samurai in the story is Sakon Shiba (Tetsuro Tamba), a ronin who comes across the mill looking for a place to crash and accidentally intrudes on this crime. The peasants try to get him to leave, but he has a sword and insists on staying and sleeping. He seems kinda amused by their amateurishness but also charmed by their cause and can’t help but give them advice and taunt them into not giving up.

He’s already in trouble being in the presence of kidnappers and not doing anything, then when the magistrate’s men come on a rescue mission he actually finds himself fighting them off. So now he’s in it. He’s outlaw samurai #1.

Well, the magistrate’s gotta get his daughter back, but the first try didn’t work because of this samurai. They don’t want to send anybody good, so they remember they got this one “country bumpkin” samurai in a jail cell. He’s a murderer but a goofball who wants to stay there for shelter. They test him and he steals a guy’s sword so they hire him to go on this mission to kill the samurai in the mill. Also along on the mission is another samurai who doesn’t really want to get involved but just likes hanging out at the magistrate’s pad to eat his food and drink his wine.

When the country bumpkin finds out that the kidnappers are peasants and why they took the magistrate’s daughter he immediately feels bad and quits to join their side. The other guy won’t join him, because he wants to stay and keep having the wine, but he also doesn’t really give a fuck so he doesn’t stop the other guy from switching sides.

Of course, the conflict escalates. Three killers called The Gods of Death get sent in. For a minute I thought wait a minute, these aren’t the three outlaw samurai, are there? Because there were three of them. They’re a colorful threat reminiscent of the three brothers from LONE WOLF AND CUB 2.

There are many reasons why this is a great samurai movie. One of them is stylistic. It has a whole bunch of really cool camera moves and zooms, something unexpected at this time and in this genre. There’s even a couple connected camera moves to look like one shot that goes from outside into a building, almost like a precursor to the EVIL DEAD demon-cam thing.

More importantly I really like the themes of this story. It’s got a whole 99% thing going on, the desperate peasants rising up against the negligent rich people who control their lives and live off their labor. In one great scene the peasants selflessly give up their last cup of porridge to Shiba, to thank him for his help. Then he feeds some of it to the kidnapped girl. At first it seems like he’s giving up his share to be less cruel to the hostage, but she gags at the taste of the porridge and it turns out he’s trying to show her the disparity going on in this society. Most of the people can barely even afford a food that’s too disgusting for her to eat.

The giving up of the porridge is part of the other big theme of the movie, the cycle of sacrifice, the paying it forward type shit. The peasants will risk their lives to help their clans, so the samurai will risk his to help them, so they will give up their food for him, so he will allow himself to be punished in their place, so the girl will want to help him, etc. The daughter is of the upcoming generation so it’s not too late for her, but the adults above her have no honor, they can’t even be trusted to stick by a Promise Between Samurai. So fuck those people.

And on top of all that this is just a good story with likable (and hatable) characters, some good sword fights here and there, and good suspense as you hope for who is gonna become an outlaw and when. It left me wishing for more Three Outlaw Samurai adventures, and apparently there were some. This was made as the origin story for a TV series. I doubt I’ll ever see that, so I will assume they’re still walking down that road together, always finding some more honorable trouble to get into.


VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 11th, 2012 at 1:32 am and is filed under Action, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

20 Responses to “Three Outlaw Samurai”

  1. haven’t seen this, but just wanted to let you know that the japanese title for the movie, as written on the poster above, translates roughly to THREE LITTLE SAMURAI. which is funny. (the character 匹 is the counter for small animals like dogs and cats, etc., rather than for people).

  2. I wish I could win some kind of contest to get all of Criterion’s blu rays because they are so, so awesome but so, so expensive

  3. Rumored to have been an influence on The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

  4. Vern, if you want good hardcore Japanese filmatism from this era, some of my faves:

    1959: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fires_on_the_Plain_(film)

    also 1964: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onibaba_(film)

    also 1964: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kwaidan_(film)

  5. Jareth Cutestory

    July 11th, 2012 at 7:12 am

    Oh man, FIRES ON THE PLAIN. The phrase “terrible desperation” was invented to describe that film. Just brilliant.

  6. Wow! This movie sounds really sweet! Thanks for putting this movie on my radar, Vern.

    And to make it even better, it’s released on sweet Criterion Collection, the top boss of homevideo DVD and Blu-Ray. I checked on the Criterion homepage for the extras, ad it’s too bad it’s a vanilla edition. A comentary track by one of their resident japanese cinema experts, like the very knowledgable and entertaining Michael Jeck, would had been quite sweet. But beggers aren’t chosers, i guess.

  7. Jareth Cutestory, allow me to share your love for that brillant movie you aforementioned. Funny thing is, some 7 years ago i emailed Criterion askingthem if they were going to release it, and they said they had no plans to. I got this close to buy a much inferior DVD release, a really poor case of bad image and sound quality. But i hesitated for a long time, so much so that when i finally decided to spend, Criterion anounced their release of FIRE ON THE PLAINS. You can imagine my joy at that news. I really love that movie since i first saw it on TV 10 years ago, and it kicked my ass. It’s an interesting movie that mannages to mix a big humanistic heart wiht a deep distrust and pessimism about human nature. The ending is beyond devastating. Brillant movie.

  8. “Rumored to have been an influence on The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.”

    Wouldn’t be too surpised if it did, JD, since Sergio Leone was aparently was a big fan of the samurai movie genre.

  9. caruso_stalker217

    July 11th, 2012 at 10:20 pm

    Baraka:

    I saw KWAIDAN recently and enjoyed it, but I didn’t think “Hoichi the Earless” translated very well to film.

  10. caruso_stalker217, funny you say that because it’s one of my favorite episode of the movie. The best might be the one about the wife/witch. But overall the movie is suberb.

    I remember in my youth, in the 80s, i saw this japanese cartoon/manga, which was a series with each episode based on traditional japanese folklore tales, and the episode about Ichi The Earless was particualry striking and intense. To this day that story still sends shivers down my spine.

    Kwaidan’s Ichi The Earless’s episode was influencial and inspirational to one of the most badass movie ever made, John Milius’ CONAN THE BARBARIAN. That scene after the crixifiction where they are trying to save Conan’s life with sorcery and incantations, the way his body is painted with caligraphy all over his body is based on the Earless’s legend, something that is pointed by Milius himself in the audio comentary. Cool, isn’t it?

    Can’t wait to see “Three Outlaw Samurai”. I have a particular soft spot for japanese cinema, and i love to discover good cool japanese movies from yesteryears.

  11. Jareth Cutestory

    July 12th, 2012 at 6:59 am

    asimov: I considered buying an expensive studio release of LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD prior to Criterion releasing their version. I’m also glad I waited. The studio version looked like a third generation VHS tape, while the Criterion version was typically stunning.

    We all know that Criterion employs superior technology and skill to clean up their acquisitions, but I wonder why so many of the releases from the studios are often so catastrophically bad, especially the archival releases.

  12. I sincerely hope that Criterion issues a new edition with “Some John Q shit” – Vern on the box.

  13. Jareth Cutestory, if i had to venture a guess, it’s because of greed (money-piching), and the fact that studios tend to treat their movies as mere disposable products, as if thet are like shoes. Meanwhile, Criterion is run by and employs true film afficionados and they treat films as the important cultural artifacts they are. For Criterion, movies are a passion, and more then just a mean to get new Ferrari, if you know what i mean.

    I love Criterion. By first DVD from them was ROBOCOP. Love it!

  14. Hideo Gosha was plenty popular in Japan, but never really caught on in the west. I’m glad his films are seeing more releases though. Animeigo has a few too.

    The 50s, 60s, even 70s were a time of a lot of social turmoil in Japan. Not like our turmoil of marijuana, rock n roll, and long hair. More like an internal struggle between giants of industry and government both foreign and domestic reshaping all society, usually in the most blunt ways possible. Militant/quasi-terrorist communist and socialist factions were also a huge part of the era and I think this film must have felt very much in tune with what audiences were stuck in the middle of back then.

    Of course like most good stories it seems to remain relevant over time and cultural boundary.

    Loving the reviews lately, Vern. Don’t often have time to get into the discussions, but every time I visit you’ve got something interesting up. Who else is going to do a straight faced retrospective of the police academy films in the middle of the summer rush?

  15. *clink*

    That’ll be one more ingot of “I’m-glad-I’m-not-part-of-the-99-percent” welded to my inherited/hard-earned suit of upper-class armour. Thanks Vern!

    (P.S. Watch the Emmy Award winning DOWNTON ABBEY. There are shitty people in every class, including the lower ones.)

  16. Perhaps because it rarely reaches the scale of actual class warfare, the 99%ers vs. 1%er conflict is truly a timeless issue. It pre-dates my life and now even supplies the late great Christopher Hitchens with ideas (via George Orwell) from beyond the grave!

    *** From this period also dates some of Orwell’s best and most mordant egalitarianism. Readers who have followed the “99 percent” campaign of response to the mixture of crime and capitalism on Wall Street in 2011 may be amused at the exactitude of Orwell’s observation in this culling from the press. From a letter from Lady Oxford to The Daily Telegraph, on the subject of war economies: “Since most London houses are deserted there is little entertaining. In any case, most people have to part with their cooks and live in hotels.” Apparently, nothing will ever teach these people that the 99 percent of the population exist. ***
    http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2012/08/christopher-hitchens-george-orwell

    Motherfucker just keeps writing. Not even death can stop him.

    Christof can bugger off.

  17. Christof – because why? Because of a samurai movie? It sounds like you’re annoyed by my praising the populist message of the movie or something, but I don’t get the specifics. Are you denying that in many societies (including ancient Japan) the poor are neglected by the ruling class? I’m not saying YOU did anything, but come on bud. If you really are a rich person and don’t see this as a reality then it proves what the movie was talking about. You don’t even know about porridge.

    Anyway, don’t let my interpretation scare you off, it’s a good movie. In this one the shitty rich people are the government too, so you could read it as a “throw the bums out” message if you prefer. And the daughter of the magistrate is sympathetic so that’ll be the “good people in every class” reverse of your Downton Abbey example.

    Anyway the important thing is if you’re really in the richest 1% PLEASE buy a bunch of shit through my ads. If you don’t need the shit you can send that to me also.

  18. By the way, I haven’t really followed “the 99% Movement” at all or been a part of any of those protests, but I’ve used the terminology in a couple reviews because it’s handy shorthand for the issue of economic disparity. Which I guess is probly why that whole thing caught on.

  19. Vern, I am not rich – I have a newborn daughter – and I have not seen this movie (I’ll try to view it some time down the road).

    If you’ll permit me: I think that the “poor” – at least in our current American society – can’t really blame the rich for their problems, and thusly I am not prepared to claim the economic disparity is the result of rich people screwing over those who don’t have “as much.” It doesn’t gel with what I’ve seen – which is why I reacted the way I did in my post. Feudal Japan? Okay, sure. But not modern America. It’s apples to oranges.

    And I’ll tell you what: I’ll look into buying some of the shit on your ads. I like most of your reviews – you provide me with entertainment – and so I’ll try to buy something here in the next couple months. I’m serious.

    And to Mouth: Cheers, and I don’t plan on Buggering Off – not that I post here much.

  20. Christof; “I think that the “poor” – at least in our current American society – can’t really blame the rich for their problems.”

    Christof; “I’m serious.”

    So, which is it? Because it can’t be both.

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