Monday, November 08, 2010

Asia Society: Three Outlaw Samurai

It is three hardnosed ronin (masterless samurai) versus a small army of samurai. Good luck faceless hordes, you’re going to need it battling Sakon Shiba and his two new acquaintances. However, the three do not start on the same side in Hideo Gosha’s Three Outlaw Samurai (trailer here), which screens this Friday in New York at the Asia Society as part of their ongoing Japanese Cinema 1960s film series.

While there are obviously thematic similarities between Outlaw and Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, Gosha’s film was actually based on his early 1960’s television show of the same name, making Shiba and his comrades-in-arms some of the first television characters to make the jump from the small box to the large screen. Gosha also became the first television director to take the big step up to features. Yet, as a representative of the samurai film, Outlaw is a complete, self-contained feature, with plenty of hack-and-slash action and tragic fatalism to satisfy genre devotees.

By chance, Shiba happens across three desperate peasants holding hostage the daughter of their local magistrate. They hope to use her as leverage to gain more humane conditions for the peasantry. They even have an official appeal to present when the head of the clan arrives for an official inspection. Of course, the magistrate is having none of it, but his strong-arm tactics backfire, turning bemused spectator Shiba into an active ally of the peasants. It also leads to the defection of garrulous Kyojuro Sakura, the Porthos of the three outlaws, who feels a greater loyalty to the peasant stock from which he came. Though he finds the whole affair rather tacky, Einosuke Kikyo remains in the magistrate’s service, but considering how well he and Shiba seem to get along (not to mention the film’s title), it only seems a matter of time before he changes sides as well.

If not a classic on the level of a Yojimbo, Outlaw is an artfully crafted film delivering everything one could ask for from a film about three ronin anti-heroes. When Shiba, Sakura, and Kikyo finally team-up and take on the clan, they are all business, but not distractingly superhuman. They might cut down a force that out-numbers them fifty to one, but they get a bit dinged up in the process. Yet, true to the spirit of Jidaigeki cinema, it ends with a bittersweet note rather than rousing triumphalism.

Tetsuro Tamba (Tiger Tanaka in You Only Live Twice) nails the square-jawed gunslinger with a conscious vibe of Shiba. He is one bad cat. Likewise, Mikijiro Hira rakishly chews the scenery as the hedonistic Kikyo. Only Sakura, the Oscar Madison samurai, seems like a character firmly rooted in TV land, yet Isamu Nagato brings a measure of pathos to him as he wrestles with his guilt stemming from an unfortunate incident early in the film.

Not currently available on DVD in the U.S., Outlaw is the sort of period action that has earned legions of fans for Japanese cinema. Briskly paced and well staged by Gosha, it should be a real crowd pleaser when it screens this Friday (11/12) at the Asia Society—and the tickets are free.