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Three Outlaw Samurai: Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // Unrated // February 14, 2012
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted February 11, 2012 | E-mail the Author

Image courtesy of the Criterion Collection

Hideo Gosha's Three Outlaw Samurai (1964) is a simple story told on a small scale, but it packs plenty of drama, suspense and intrigue into just 93 minutes. Our story revolves around wandering samurai Sakon Shiba (Tetsuro Tamba, You Only Live Twice), who encounters a trio of peasants holding a young woman captive in a rickety old mill. The peasants plead their case, identifying her as the daughter of a cruel magistrate (Hisashi Igawa) who refuses to lessen the financial strain on local villagers. Sakon initially distances himself from their problems...but with no immediate plans (or money), he decides to join their cause in return for food and shelter. Soon enough, the magistrate's men come to retrieve her with another samurai (Isamu Nagato) on their side, but the skilled fighter reconsiders his loyalties after hearing Sakon's version of things. So now we've got two outlaw samurai against a corrupt magistrate and his fearsome subjects...but as the title implies, there's a bit more to the story.

Three Outlaw Samurai served as both Gosha's directorial debut and an adaptation of the eponymous 1960s Japanese television series. An accompanying booklet in this Criterion release informs us that most or all of the early TV episodes have been lost, which makes Three Outlaw Samurai feel more singular than it ought to be. It's filled with great characters and almost begs for a big-screen sequel, in the same way Akira Kurosawa's earlier Yojimbo led to Sanjuro just one year later (although, interestingly enough, Gosha also worked on a revival of the series in 1970). All three of our heroes have distinct personalities and styles, giving Three Outlaw Samurai a well-rounded core that makes the drama and action flow smoothly. The film's otherwise straightforward story is also highlighted by fantastic performances, a memorable score by Toshiaki Tsushima and stylish cinematography by Tadashi Sakai.

Unfortunately, this Region 1 debut of Three Outlaw Samurai isn't nearly as feature-packed as Criterion's usual output. The 93-minute main feature arrives with only a theatrical trailer, but the technical presentation is definitely up to par; even more so with this separate Blu-Ray edition, and it's priced accordingly. The film's eye-catching locales look terrific, while the aforementioned score holds up about as well as expected for a nearly 50 year-old Japanese import. Overall, Three Outlaw Samurai isn't a benchmark release but genre fans should enjoy every minute. Let's take a closer look, shall we?

Image courtesy of the Criterion Collection

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of Three Outlaw Samurai looks just about as flawless as the aging source material will allow. Image detail and textures are crisp, shadow details are consistently good and black levels are rock solid from start to finish. Digital imperfections, such as edge enhancement, aliasing and compression artifacts are virtually non-existent. Contrast seems to have been slightly boosted during a handful of scenes, although it typically creates a more consistently pleasing image overall. All things considered, this is another fantastic restoration job by Criterion, especially since the 93-minute main feature gets almost an entire dual-layered disc to itself. Fans of Three Outlaw Samurai should be thrilled to have it in such pristine condition.

The original Japanese audio track (presented in LPCM mono) is equally impressive. There's a distinct lack of overall depth and dynamic range during most of Three Outlaw Samurai, a clear result of source material issues and nothing more. Dialogue is crisp and Toshiaki Tsushima's score sounds especially good. Crackles, pops and hiss are kept to an absolute minimum, rounding out the audio presentation nicely. Optional English subtitles are offered during the main feature, although the packaging advertises this as a "new translation". Not being familiar with earlier versions, I can't really speak with authority here.

Packaging, Presentation & Menu Design

Seen above, Criterion's menu designs are smooth and easy to navigate. This 93-minute film has been divided into 19 chapters (including color bars), the layer change is not noticeable and this Blu-Ray is locked for Region "A" playback only. The disc is housed in Criterion's usual "stocky" Blu-Ray keepcase, adorned with attractive cover artwork and a chapter insert printed inside. The included Booklet features an essay by filmmaker/critic Bilge Ebiri, who sheds light on the film but uses a lot of parentheses.

Bonus Features

Unfortunately, Three Outlaw Samurai arrives with only one extra: the film's original Theatrical Trailer (2:19). It's presented in 1080p; like the main feature, we get the original Japanese audio and optional English subtitles. Shame we couldn't get more with this release, but at least it's priced accordingly.

Final Thoughts

No question about it: Three Outlaw Samurai is an accessible, engaging import that genre fans should enjoy. A potent blend of drama and action moves this character-driven film quickly, while memorable sights and sounds also hold our interest along the way. Criterion's one-disc package is slim, pairing a strong technical presentation with only one minor bonus feature. Any way you slice it, though, the low-priced Three Outlaw Samurai is a true exercise in quality over quantity. Recommended.

Image courtesy of the Criterion Collection

NOTE: The above images were obtained directly from Criterion and do not represent Blu-Ray's native 1080p resolution.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance design projects, teaches art classes and runs a website or two in his spare time. Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD-DVDs and writing stuff in third person.

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