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Three Outlaw Samurai
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by Jay Seaver

"No reluctance on my part."
5 stars

Reluctant heroes are a storytelling staple. It gives the writer a reason to build the tension, develop the villain slowly, set up a variety of ways that the tale could go, even if you know in your heart of hearts that the direction is pre-ordained. It gives the audience a certain amount of identification with the protagonist, because most of us know that our first reaction to a dangerous situation would probably be "don't get involved". And, when they finally do get involved, the audience knows that the bad guys are in for one heck of an ass-kicking. As the name suggests, this film gives us three reluctant heroes.

Sakon Shiba (Tesuro Tamba) is a wandering ronin just looking for a roof to sleep under for a night, but the mill he chooses is occupied by Jimbei and Tasugoro, a pair of elderly farmers who have kidnapped Aya, the daughter of the cruel local magistrate. He gives them enough advice to avoid a bloodbath. The magistrate offers two prisoners their freedom if they deal with the situation (it would not look good to send troops after two old men); one of the prisoners, samurai Kyojuro Sakura (Isamu Nagato) kills a man en route and later switches sides, touched by the farmers' plight. Finally, he sends Einosuke Kikyo (Mikijiro Hira), the samurai in his service who prefers to be a threat than an actual weapon, but when Kikyo, too, decides he is serving a dishonorable master, it's time to call in the mercenaries to keep the letter that the farmers have written from reaching the visiting lord.

Not only are our three heroes reluctant, but they resist action for different reasons. Shiba is an older man, weary of violence and betrayal. Tamba portrays him as never raising his voice, initially giving the impression that he's only interested in the hostage situation because a bloodbath would disturb his sleep. His dry delivery is an amusing contrast to the panicked kidnappers. Sakura, meanwhile, is thrust into the situation against his will, and has no qualms about switching sides. Nagato has the greatest transformation to undergo, starting the movie as an amoral drunkard and becoming a man tortured by his own honor. Kikyo, on the other hand, is somewhat lazy; he's got a good gig where he seldom has to actually do any work, and doesn't want to get his hands dirty. Hira gives his character a brash, arrogant energy that contrasts with his older counterparts' reserve; though he wanted nothing to do with the fight, once he's in, he's all in.

The supporting cast is good, too, especially the women. Miyuki Kuwano plays Aya, who initially seems more confused than angry at her captivity; she knows one of her kidnappers and can't believe they would have a problem with her father. Her reluctant change in viewpoints rings true. Toshie Kimura shows up later in the movie as Ine, the wife of the man Sakura kills early on. She winds up the de facto leader of the villagers, saddened at the loss of her husband and yet oddly drawn to the man who, unbeknownst to her, is responsible. Ms. Kimura brings a quiet dignity to her role, and really anchors the entire film.

After all, the film needs that. Despite the real danger, the film could become lighthearted or tacky in the wrong hands. Kikyo's initial antics are amusing, as is Shiba's droll advice to the kidnappers. Having one warrior change sides is dramatic, but having two do so risks being comedic. Director and co-writer Hideo Gosha shows unusually good instincts for a first-time filmmaker, knowing just when to lighten the mood enough to keep things moving along at a quick pace, and when to add enough darkness to keep a wholly tragic ending in the cards. He juggles a large cast of characters, but few if any are extraneous; the script (written with two television writers) is tight.

Gosha and cinematographer Tadashi Sakai do a great job of capturing the action visually, too. The widescreen black-and-white photography is sharp, with plenty of contrast between blacks and whites and a gritty look that matches the action. The action scenes themselves are exceptional; Gosha plays rough and lets the audience watch the blood flow. No formal, dignified combat here; both the samurai and the corrupt magistrate are playing for keeps.

"Three Outlaw Samurai" is not available on video in the US at the time of this writing, which is a shame. It's an excellent movie that started the career of a notable filmmaker.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=13797&reviewer=371
originally posted: 02/01/06 06:09:55
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USA
  02-Mar-1964

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