Genre: Rough and Tumble Samurai Tale
Setting: Late Edo/Tokugawa Era
review in one breath
Ronin Gai is an entertaining classic samurai tale pitting an odd assortment of unemployed samurai (ronin) against a formidable troop of Tokugawan samurai terrorizing the men and women of their small rural village. Filled to the brim with unkempt and morally questionable characters a new twist is added to this tale of honor from unlikely sources, where the underdogs here would in most other films constitute mere scoundrels.
As the Tokugawa (Shogunate) Era neared collapse, the number of masterless samurai (ronin) grew exponentially, in essence decimating much of the upper-middle and high class in Japanese society. Some of the unemployed ronin tried to make ends meet through honest means while others found it easier to use their samurai skills to unlawful, even gruesome ends.
It seems that several of the films I have seen lately all take place toward the end of the Edo/Tokugawa Era where the feudal Shogunate system is in near collapse. It is interesting to see which side these films take in choosing their protagonist's allegiances. Here the remaining Tokugawan (Shogunate) loyalists are depicted as a cruel and oppressive band of haughty, boastful soldiers looking down upon the myriad unemployed and thus lesser samurai roaming the streets.
Thus this film clearly takes a pro-Meiji (Era) stance, from which simultaneously flow a disdain for the traditional shogunate social hierarchy which so easily oppressed lesser classes/families and a thorough exploration of a true honor and humanitarianism in those traditionally deemed morally questionable and occupying the lowest rungs of the social ladder. This is as much a film about the triumph of a band of sweaty ronin over polished shogunate samurai as it is the victory of a universal common sense of honor over a tradition which assigned nobility only to a privileged upper class.
Our tale revolves around a small rural village whose main attraction is a brothel where the townspeople gather for drinks and joviality at day's end. This generally seems to result in much head-knocking and pitiful sword flailing as the poverty-stricken ronin fuel their depression and anger with warm sake. Frequent faces include Bull, the brothel's bouncer whose good-natured ferocity clearly makes him the right man for the job. He secretly loves Obun, the cheerful and hard-working sister of another ronin who has taken up the smelly business of bird-breeding in order to survive.
There is also the wily Aramaki Gennai (Yoshio Harada) who while not stealing swords from dying samurai or sneaking out of the inn without paying is thoroughly romancing his former love Oshin, the prettiest face amongst the brothel's women. The town's most respected ronin, Horo (Renji Ishibashi) seems to serve as a de facto constable yet makes his keep by secretly using his formidable sword skills for tasks deemed too unclean and demeaning for the hired Tokugawan samurai.
When one by one the girls of the brothel are killed by mysterious swordsmen as they ply their trade in the late hours of the night, the fabric of the small town begins to disintegrate. When it gradually comes to light that the band of Tokugawan samurai in the area might be involved in these murders, their desperation increases as no one seems capable or brave enough to intervene.
But when the samurai eventually capture Oshin with the intent of tearing her to pieces between two oxen, the breaking point is reached where self-pity and self-interest slowly give way to long-buried notions of honor, valor and yes, MAJOR BUTT KICKAGE.
This is a very entertaining and well-cast samurai tale whose heroes and victims are all from the lowest social classes. Though not explicitly, this will likely remind you of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai -- with the caveat that all of the unemployed samurai which come to the rescue in the current film are variations of the wild and unkempt character Kikuchiyo played by Mifune Toshiro in Kurosawa's classic tale. The sense of desperation and fear amongst the poor in the face of better armed and pursed oppressors, as well as their rising up against the odds in order to protect themselves and their future are the key similarities between the two films.
This notion of a "Ronin Gai" or Ronin Street/Avenue wherein a new type of social order/cohesion emerges and where the impoverished and outcast may nevertheless rise up in displays of courage and heroism is well established in Japanese film. The term "Ronin Gai" alone appears in the titles of 12 different Japanese films, dating back as early as the 1936 (!) Ronin Gai no Kaoyaku [The Boss of Ronin Street] by director Shirai Sentaro.
Version reviewed: Region 1 DVD
|"Ronin Gai" genre piece pits down and out ronin against polished, well-armed oppressors.||Plenty of sword-flailing, limb-hacking and head-butting.||If the boat's a-rockin, don't come knockin'!!.||Highly interesting and gritty characters make this film wholly entertaining.|