Until a few years ago, I hadn't been educated in the way of the samurai genre. In college, I was taught that samurai films could be deemed the Japanese equivalent of American westerns. I've seen how this comparison could be made, but no film has seemed to embody this idea more than 'Three Outlaw Samurai.'
The film opens with Sakon Shiba, a vagabond samurai, wandering the land when he stumbles across an old rundown mill. There he finds three peasants who have kidnapped the magistrate's daughter in an attempt to get him to pay attention to their petition – which he has been blatantly ignoring for some time now. The peasants don't mean any harm to their hostage, they just want the magistrate to hear out their petition. Having been around the country, Sakon knows that the magistrate will have them killed just for taking his daughter, so he decides to intervene and aid them in their cause.
There isn't a single advantage to being stuck in an old mill when the cavalry come banging on the door, so Sakon and the three noble but dimwitted peasants aren't exactly in the best position. To help take down the skilled samurai Sakon, the magistrate frees a similar jailed vagabond samurai named Kyojuro Sakura, all in the hopes of having his daughter returned safely. When Kyojuro gets to the mill and learns about Sakon's cause, he switches teams and joins the men in the mill. From there, things start getting complicated.
The entire film you'll keep asking yourself, 'Who's the third "outlaw samurai?" Is the magistrate's evil enforcer?' It isn't until halfway through the film that we find out which other samurai warrior is also going to switch sides and fight for good over high-paying evil.
The characters and the relationships of 'Three Outlaw Samurai' are what make it feel so much like a western. If we are comparing this to my favorite classic western 'The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,' Sakon is like The Man with No Name – he doesn't talk much (because he uses his sword to do all the talking), he's usually serious (but that doesn't mean we don't see him smile), he defends good (but also watches out for himself) and, well, he's a badass (he backs his words with actions). Kyojuro isn't nearly as selfish as Tuco (The Ugly), but he definitely falls within that character type. He's goofy, a little dumb, but also very capable. His character is highly likeable despite making a few mistakes. Although you'd assume that the magistrate would be "The Bad," he's really not too much of a foreground character. He's got a nasty twisted samurai doing his bidding, working as his mouth and muscle – like the Sheriff of Nottingham. He's a completely unpredictable and sick little puppy, bringing a lot of tension to the film.
'Three Outlaw Samurai' was made in the time where gore hadn't become quite as prevalent and stylized as we've come to think of Japanese action cinema of that period. 99 percent of the film's violence shows swords cutting through the air, but not the results of the wounds they inflict. There are only three killings in the movie that actually show blood leaving the victim's body or spraying through the air, fairly tame for what I was expecting.
If you don't know 'Three Outlaw Samurai,' you should. It's one of the coolest samurai films I've ever seen. It's got everything you want from a good movie: story, suspense, comedy, romance, fun, and action in the form of mass amounts of swordplay.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The Criterion Collection has placed 'Three Outlaw Samurai' on a Region A-locked BD-50 in a clear standard-to-the-collection keepcase. The cover art is awesome, featuring drawings of the film. Included in the case is a booklet with more artwork and an essay from Bilge Ebiri of 'New York' magazine. As always, it includes "about the transfer info." My favorite thing about the disc itself – not a single thing plays before the main menu.
'Three Outlaw Samurai' has received an all new high-definition transfer that was "created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35 mm print struck from the original negative." It has been given a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that presents it in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
The "about the transfer" info also explains that "thousands of instances of of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI's DRS and Pixel Farm's PFClean, while Image Systems' DVNR was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction." This doesn't mean that the print is flawless, but almost flawless. There are a few instances of specks appearing on screen, but they are very few – which isn't bad for a black & white film that's set mostly during dark nighttime environments. The key part to the DVNR statement is that it was used for "small" occasions. That look of DNR that we've come to dread is not a constant player in 'Three Outlaw Samurai.' They don't use it all the time, nor do they use it to clean up all noise – just some. It's typically used to tone the noise down. There is only one occasion where the DNR gets in the way and it's during a close-up shot of a flower that's left featureless.
That said, know that this is probably the best the film has ever looked and it's up to par with other Criterion releases of mid-1960s films. In scenes where the print is preserved enough to not need anything more than a nice scrub, the sharpness and level of details mirrors that of something you'd expect from a new release. Contrast makes a major difference in black & white films, and it looks amazing here. Aside from the previously mentioned cleaning tools used to enhance this nearly 50-year-old title, the only other flaw that I noticed was a fast jitter around the 19:35 mark.
According to the booklet, "the monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm optical soundtrack print." Yes, this means that the only audio option on the Blu-ray is a Japanese mono linear PCM.
"Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube's integrated workstation." There isn't a single instance on this disc of audio distortion. The mono track adds to the feeling of watching an old film. It fittingly matches the mood and style of the film.
Personally, I would have enjoyed a new mix that expanded from beyond the front speakers, but that's asking a lot.
If I was a studio looking to remaster old catalog titles, I'd headhunt some of the folks from Criterion. They sure seem to know what they're doing. They make the oldest prints look super sharp and clean, only using DNR in small doses when it's absolutely necessary. The remastered audio is flawlessly presented in its original mono state. Not a single problem (aside from being mono) can be found within it. The movie itself is well-worth seeing. It features everything good in cinema, perfectly juggling story, comedy, action, fun, intensity and some great characters. Mark another notch up for Criterion pumping out a cool movie that I probably never would have seen otherwise.