Three Outlaw Samurai comes to US Blu-ray via Criterion with a 1080p resolution, encoded using the AVC codec and framed within a theatrically correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The disc itself is locked to Region A.
According to the accompanying booklet, Criterion's Blu-ray transfer was “created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35mm print struck from the original negative. Thousands of instances 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.” In English, they put in the effort, and thankfully the results show this.
If the presence of an admittance of DNR sends a knee-jerk reaction through your systems, fret not, it appears to have been used in an entirely tempered manner. There are a couple of instances of slight noise which points towards why it was employed and the effects overall are accomplished, the grain structure remains largely even and dare I say subtler, but in an organic sense, than it could have.
The majority of the standout shots are in the dark, and that's when the image really comes to life. The contrasts looks slightly skewed towards making the most of these scenes, and it works. The play of shadows and light, particularly using the angles of the mill, is bewitching and holds all the darkness, without falling foul of crushing, you could want. The frame composition, drawing the viewer's eye, in tandem with this, gives the image a bit of dimensionality.
The shadow detail, such as the grain and notches on the wooden timbers and the fibre of ropes, is good. External shots tend to be the slightly softer, particularly in strong light, but still the foliage and the like are easy to pick out and don't clump or form a haze. When things aren't simply black or white, the shadowing and subtle gradation, shown when there's a split focus between foreground and background, dances around issues of banding. Steady close-ups are the real prize shots, the oft-used bright light dancing across a character's eyes, bisecting the darkness all around; the detail and strong contrast infinitely apparent.
The print restoration is a resounding success, no obvious dirt or scratches, which is becoming the standard these days, but the bonus of no fluctuating frames of light wavering is only something you perhaps realise when the credits have rolled – it's consistent throughout.
It's crisp (within reason), fields a bold contrast, a clean image and though it has gone through some processing avoids the problems that may have come thereafter; depth and detail, top stuff.
Point of note - subtitles appear within the frame.
One track – Japanese LPCM mono.
There's not a great deal to go through with regards this mono track – it's everything you'd expect a good period mono track to be, nothing more or less.
The score is as striking as it could reasonably be, the wooden percussion that sporadically punctuates the action sounds hollow in all the right ways. The speech is absolutely spot on, the level doesn't dance about, Testuro Tamba's voice being deep and resonant.
Effects, though obviously entirely frontal, are well layered in. The insects and wildlife of the night time chirp, the frogs croak and it creates a nice background. The one, appropriately cutting noise, is that of the sword strokes. They slice with a whip and a rip, incisively tearing through anything else going on with sharpness and an air of force.
It's a surprisingly dynamic mono track in some ways, it's natural and avoids tinniness, but it is what it is, little more could have been done with it. If you can appreciate a clean – there are no pops, cracks or background hiss – and stable lossless single speaker track then this is a fine example.
A short, 14 page booklet with an essay on the film by critic Bilge Ebiri. The artwork is pretty nice though.
Trailer – 1080p – 2:28
Three Outlaw Samurai is a classic slice of samurai action, giving enough social commentary to be deemed artistic but not deviating into ponderous territory. It keeps the characters, their code and their swords (or spear in the case of Sakura) forefront. The ending may take a more overt nihilistic tone that can seem at odds with the simplistic template of chanbara, but it has given Hideo Gosha's debut a final punch that has seen it endure beyond lighter genre entries.
The Region A locked disc from Criterion is extremely capable in both image and audio elements, a great advert for restorations to be carried out by those who care for the material. The extras are unfortunately minimal and even the booklet is more a pamphlet on this release.
If you're a fan of samurai cinema this absolutely demands to be in your collection.
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