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Where EAST meets the Northwest

THREE OUTLAW SAMURAI. Three Outlaw Samurai, director Hideo Gosha’s first feature film, achieves a rare balance in samurai film: plenty of action, but with a message behind it — that virtue can triumph over evil. (Photo courtesy of Shochiku Co., Ltd.)

From The Asian Reporter, V16, #31 (August 1, 2006), page 15.

A masterful blend of action and heart

Three Outlaw Samurai

Directed by Hideo Gosha
Produced by Gin-ichi Kishimoto and Tetsuro Tamba

By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter

The films of the Northwest Film Center’s "Sons of Samurai" series, along with great samurai films in general, tend to fall into two categories — swordplay or drama. While the best films have elements of each, one typically leaves a movie like Harakiri thinking of the injustices of society, while Yojimbo satisfies with gloriously rollicking, if philosophically insubstantial, action. Three Outlaw Samurai (1964), director Hideo Gosha’s first feature film, achieves the rare balance: there is plenty of action here, but with a message behind it, that virtue can triumph over evil. Eugene author Patrick Galloway, who wrote the seminal Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook (see book review, "Katanas on film: an indispensable guide," AR, June 20, 2006, at <www.asianreporter.com>), will introduce the August 11 showing and sign copies of his book.

Hideo Gosha first brought the characters of Three Outlaw Samurai to the Japanese small screen, creating one of the finest television series of the 1960s. Before Gosha, no television director had made the transition to the silver screen, so his groundbreaking decision to make this feature led to such TV-to-film transitions as the famous "Zatoichi" series. One can see his television influence in the film’s unrelenting pace as well as its tightly wound plot; the balance of screen time among the three eponymous ronin (masterless samurai), while still retaining their idiosyncratic natures, shows Gosha’s ability to juggle multiple stars.

The storyline of Three Outlaw Samurai is a familiar one, sprinkled with mildly derivative moments that samurai aficionados will likely recognize. Sakon Shiba (Tetsuro Tamba), a wandering ronin, happens upon an abandoned mill where three peasants have captured Aya (Miyuki Kuwano), the daughter of the local magistrate, in order to force an audience addressing their grievances. Although he feigns indifference, Shiba is soon advising the peasants, finally taking up arms alongside them when the magistrate arrives to recapture his daughter.

After initial defeat at Shiba’s hands, the magistrate clears out his jail in order to find unscrupulous men and return to the mill in force. Among these prisoners is Kyojuro Sakura (Isamu Nagato), a portly ronin who soon defects to the side of the farmers, explaining that he is from a farm himself. One of the magistrate’s regular mercenaries is Einosuke Kikyo (Mikijiro Hira), who declines Sakura’s suggestion that he join them, saying he is too fond of the soft life the magistrate affords him.

When the magistrate kidnaps the daughter of one of the peasants, hoping to force an exchange, Shiba mediates a release of Aya, in exchange for his promise to release the peasants unharmed. Shiba offers himself as scapegoat for their punishment, after eliciting a further promise that he, too, will be released when his whipping is complete. When the magistrate breaks his promise — a sacred one made between two samurai — Kikyo joins the other two ronin for a showdown, uniting the honest ronin against the dishonorable, deal-breaking magistrate.

There are other subordinate plot elements, but their proliferation only adds to the excitement, neither diminishing the main storyline nor confusing the audience. Gosha’s ability further shows itself in his memorable camera angles and dramatic framing; the dark tones of internal and external shots hint at the evil lurking behind what appears to be a simple tale of bravado. His blending of action with social conscience is simply masterful, never overemphasizing the warm heart beating behind the spine-tingling action.

His three samurai provide equally deft, utterly distinct performances: Tamba balances Shiba’s ice-cold demeanor with a warm, stout heart; Nagato’s Sakura is a "country bumpkin samurai" with dazzling spear and sword skills and a stubbornly loyal nature; and Hira manages to make us hate Kikyo before cheering him on as he finally sides with the peasants. The winning ingredients of Three Outlaw Samurai show why it’s such a fantastic success: combine a great young director with a solid ensemble cast and a tight, thrilling script. The result is cinematic magic, the perfect blend of blood and tears, a film worth watching over and over again.

Even those who have seen this delightful classic before will want to attend Friday’s screening to hear Galloway’s introduction and grab an autograph from Oregon’s (if not America’s) premier critic of this often-derided and poorly explored film genre. Get in line now, because Whitsell Auditorium is sure to be packed for this one-two combination of samurai wit, wisdom, and movie mastery.