Hideo Gosha’s 1964 debut, Three Outlaw Samurai, is similar to a number of other chanbara films from the era: they use a narrative full of incident and event as a mechanism to distill, instead, a discussion of themes and ideas – the use of an emphatic set of visible values (surfaces, textures, locations, gestures, costumes, weather, wounds, text) to throw into sharp relief the invisible, looming ones (hierarchy, politics, injustice, depravity, hunger, loyalty, insult). This interplay between the tangible and the intangible, the material and the spectral, the present and the absent constitutes the central idea of samurai cinema. The character of the masterless samurai operates in a universe full of murder, ammunition, whore-houses, martial symbols, monetary exchange and physical oppression. There is brutal violence of definite consequence : a slit or a gash causes a physical body to spill blood and collapse like a pathetic ragdoll, and for men who fail at warfare, there is a sexual proxy: recede to a brothel and restore masculine self-esteem by raping a woman. And yet, upon this world of casual, corporeal vulgarity, a second spiritual layer constantly exerts itself – one that enforces an invisible set of rules, a code-of-operation. This complicates the situation for the various drifters in the debauched universe of the samurai film: they may do as they please, but not without toll – their very existence is in jeopardy from the imminent danger of spiritual impoverishment and the mourning that will result from it. The dynamics of the samurai film are enriched by this complication – simplistic plots of villainous clan-leaders and the warriors who defy them are actually about much else and perhaps, much grander.
Gosha heightens the contrast between these two realms – as the film progresses, it is consciously emptied of any possibility of a spiritual discussion. The narrative evolves rapidly; it twists, turns and distracts us from any lingering, private thought. Its plea to us becomes more and more persuasive as we are made to invest solely in its central premise, with our moral loyalties declared for us. The characters themselves never indulge in lament or regret, they aren’t self-reflexive: they are merely conduits of event, of gesture, of expression, of action, purveyors of verbs, nothing less and nothing more. But this is a clever strategy – by continuously shifting the focus away from the ‘unspoken code’ or the ‘truth-ether’ that permeates through the universe, felt but never seen, mentioned but never witnessed, Gosha renders any discussion of it (whether within the film or outside it) self-generating. This means that the heavy atmosphere of spiritual compulsion is a fact of the universe, just like any other, and therefore, unlike in other, lesser samurai films, the themes prevalent in the film do not become the point of its existence.
In order to first declare and then codify his emphasis on the ‘visible’ in Three Outlaw Samurai, Gosha adopts a rare visual strategy: he takes the film-frame and splinters it. He uses the most radical, insistent features of Japanese architecture: harsh verticals, geometry, sharp cuts, repetitions, patterns – that manifest in Japanese interiors in the form of sliding doors, plywood partitions, walls that do not reach the roof, columns, narrow corridors – to effect a style where the frame disintegrates and then recomposes into a smaller, proportional fragment of the original frame-area.
Gosha and his cinematographer Tadashi Sakai (who worked on four films in total, three of them with Gosha) shoot individuals and objects with long-lenses to achieve a compressed, flattened image so that the mid and the foregrounds of the image now reside on the same two-dimensional plane. This is an interesting decision, especially considering that many Japanese directors of the day preferred images with greater depth-of-field and the resultant three-dimensionality (so to say). In Three Outlaw Samurai, Gosha substitutes depth with emphasis. A character’s face is often shot through the opening in a object in the foreground – a common plan to induce the illusion of depth – but Gosha/Sakai undercut the effects of this strategy by committing themselves to an image whose depth has been squeezed out of it to a pancake: the result is that characters as well as objects now exist on the same surface, and characters that would traditionally seem to rise from behind an object now emerge from it.
Gosha further heightens this sense of a surface with no thickness/curvature by composing or blocking a number of major scenes in a frontal or planimetric fashion – the characters move therefore as if in a side-scroller video game: up, down, left or right (the assassination attempt inside the brothel is the scene most symptomatic of this strain). This assists Gosha’s larger visual scheme – when Gosha quarantines a single area of the image through sustained frame-fracturing, the two-dimensional composition further amplifies the dramatic effect of such emphasis. Remember, this strategy exists in order for Gosha to underline the visible and in effect, articulate a certain psychology or occurrence that will eventually bear heavily upon the story. This device therefore, that helps highlight a certain gesture, a revelation, a facial expression or a feeble movement – is similar to say, the iris-in of the silent films (there is a literal tribute as well, see: screenshot), an on-location ‘Bonnardising’ of the composition that helps the director illustrate (and isolate) disgust, pleasure, surprise, gratitude or just plain camaraderie by guiding the audience’s attention towards it.
The strategy is taken to an extreme as Gosha renders the frame itself part of the architecture within the scene – at significant points in the film (notably, in the opening itself), a character struts into the diegesis and others turn their heads to look at him, but the dramatic effect of the basic event of his entrance is underlined by having the frame contain his form only partially.
The top-edge of the frame decapitates the actor’s figure, revealing his gait, stride, weapon of choice and athletic ability, but his identity is still a secret. A line or two is exchanged, his voice is dangled in front of us as a clue – but before we indulge in speculation, he is made to effect a vertical squat and identify himself through inclusion. This is a peculiar blocking schema, where the actor must respond to a frame that refuses to adjust itself to accommodate him, but completely natural in the universe of Gosha’s film, where figures, shapes, silhouettes and outlines are captives of a world with a tyrannical geometry that cuts and slices through them.