RONIN GAI (1990) or "Streets of the Masterless Samurai" is an award-winning remake to Masahiro Makino's original. Directed by Kazuo Kuroki (Tomorrow), the film also commemorates the 60th death anniversary of Shozo Makino; dubbed the father of Japanese cinema. Shozo Makino is the one individual who revolutionized Japanese cinema by incorporating Western style and sidestepping the usual limitations of "plays" in cinema. This is also Shintaro Katsu's last role as the Ronin named Yagoemon "Bull" Akaushi. Shintaro Katsu is renowned for his roles as "Zatoichi".
Synopsis partially derived from dvd cover:
Set in the 1830's near the end of the age of the samurai, a small town is populated by an ensemble of colorful characters, social outcasts who patronize a restaurant and brothel on the outskirts of Edo. Among them are prostitutes and masterless samurai reduced to drunkenness and debauchery. The disgraced and disillusioned warriors get a chance at redemption when rogue samurai invade the area to murder the prostitutes.
We are all used to the usual Chambara films about the samurai code of honor, loyalty and duty. "Ronin Gai" takes a different approach; it is a Jidai Geki period piece that portrays the samurai legend in a very human and compromised level. Much like Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" with ronins finding redemption and Yamada's more recent trilogy who explores the thought of a petty samurai; this film goes the whole yards to portray samurai with an almost nihilistic tone of eccentric behavior. These men are commoners, in the lowest level of the social class, definitely not heroic. Ronin Gai (this film and the original) definitely changes the face of Chambara films forever.
These Ronin make their living in any ways possible. Gennai Aramaki (Yoshio Harada) is a drunk who depends on Oshin (refreshingly beautiful Kanako Higuchi), a prostitute in order to eat and drink. Horo makes his by testing swords for wealthy samurai by decapitating corpses. "Bull" (Shintaro Katsu) is one very interesting character; he serves as a bouncer and would go as far as letting the prostitutes' johns to hit him on his head in exchange for a meager amount of money. Bull shows a sensitive side as he also teaches the prostitutes to read and write. Obun's brother is a disgraced samurai who peddles birds to make a living. This may be a problem for the film, as these factors may form an unlikable trait from the audience. The film puts its focus on a small restaurant that is the home for prostitutes. In turn. It effectively portrays the effect of the decline of the feuding warlords that made the samurai obsolete and the dawn of the merchant class.
The film is quite visceral in its execution of swordplay. The direction by Kazuo captures the essence of samurai films in the early years. The swordfight near the end has the blood-splattering effect that we have all been used to. This more modern version may differ from Makino's original script but still retains the strong nihilistic and eccentric attitude established by Masahiro. The performances by the cast are actually quite excellent. If the director's goal is to annoy the viewer with the display of eccentric behavior, then it has been achieved. However, there is a balance to this factor as represented by the very sympathetic characteristics of Oshin, Tahei and Obun. You just can't help but be mesmerized by Kanako Higuchi's beautiful face and very conscientious character as the Oshin. Tahei (Michitaro Mizushima) is the tavern owner who also serves as the conscience and warden of the film's backdrop. Obun (Kauru Sugita)represents the status of a woman during that period, daughters of poor samurai could only hope to attain a better social status if they marry into a wealthy family.
I cannot go to any more detail without spoiling the film. Despite its cast of insufferable characters, I found that "Ronin Gai" to be a powerful piece of Japanese cinema. In its final reel, all the pitiful ronin who exhibit lecherous behavior, do ironically do rise up to serve honor and justice; becoming TRUE Samurai. Kazuo captures the essence of the heroism inherent in the most pitiful individuals in this manner. It also further cements the (counter) cultural traditions of the Jidai geki that has been established by Masahiro Makino that was first brought to worldwide acclaim by Akira Kurosawa when he directed "Seven Samurai" and "Yojimbo".
Highly Recommended! [4 stars]
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