If Kurosawa made samurai cinema for Japan and the rest of the world to boot, Rōnin-gai is the kind of samurai cinema that the Japanese made exclusively for themselves: gritty, violent, and unapologetic, but also keen on character and insight. It harkens back to the grittier rough’n’tumble samurai cinema of the Sixties and Seventies, very much the antithesis of Kurosawa’s more polished morality tales. Such films were designed to bring in audiences and cater to their love of swordplay, heroic struggle and bloodshed, and not to spark larger questions the meanings of such things. What’s interesting about Rōnin-gai is that it comments on its own material as much as it savors it.
Rōnin-gai is set in Japan’s mid-1800s, when feudalism was on the wane and samurai found themselves increasingly disenfranchised. Most of the action takes place in a brothel where many such ronin end up — the violent, wild-haired Aramaki (Yoshio Harada), or the bouncer, “Bull” (Shintaro [Zatoichi] Katsu), or the cool-eyed Gonbei (Renji Ishibashi). Right from the beginning we get an interesting hint as to how their minds, and their pride, operate. Aramaki gets into a boozy fracas with Bull; Bull challenges him to a fight right in the courtyard; Gonbei looks on amusedly and guesses the odds. Then they all realize that the only thing better than seeing who can beat whom up is wallowing in their mutual miseries, and they go off to get drunk together.
When Aramaki and Bull get into a drunken fight, they decide instead to
celebrate their mutual miseries instead of cut each other to shreds.
A ronin had several equally unappealing choices in life. He could be a sword-for-hire, and most likely compete against other samurai for the same position; he could pick up demeaning jobs meant for lower-classmen; he could turn to crime. Aramaki is in more or less the first position. He was once a more ambitious man before he lost his position and turned to drink, neither of which has helped him get any closer to the object of his affection, a prostitute at the inn named Oshin (Kanako Higuchi). Oshin sees that there’s a better man inside the drunkard, but despairs of ever trying to bring him out.
Bull, the bouncer, is another interesting mix: he watches over Oshin in a big-brotherly way (in fact, the first time he and Aramaki clash, it’s over her), and in his spare time he teaches the girls in the house how to read and write. There are others milling in and out as well: Doi, a former samurai, who ekes out a living making bird cages and harbors fantasies about someday being able to come back to the clan that spurned him. Behind them all is a group of power-drunk Shogunate swordsmen who take great pleasure in murdering prostitutes and who provide the catalyst for all of these characters to act.
Aramaki's love for Oshin, a local prostitute, is tested all the more when a gang of Shogunate
officers come through to murder every girl they can get their hands on.
The film focuses more on character than swordplay, and that works here simply because the characters are so colorful and sharply defined. Aramaki may be a drunken loser, but he’s also nobody’s fool, and still harbors flickers of real pride and ambition (his favorite reading material is European astronomy journals). Bull is like an embodiment of the aphorism “Evil is good dying of thirst”: He’s so desperate to protect Oshin from harm that when the band of killers come sniffing around after her, he sells himself to them. Only too late does he realize how he has not been able to protect anyone, least of all Oshin. Equally interesting is Doi, the bird-cage maker, who tries to scrape together the money to buy back his title when he doesn’t realize that the dignity he’s trying to regain is not something you can purchase.
Rōnin-gai also works as anthology of great career samurai actors. Yoshio Harada, scraggly and sullen, has been in an astounding number of samurai productions: the second Shurayukihime film; director Kuroki’s The Assassination of Ryoma (also about the dying days of the samurai); Shogun’s Samurai, and tons more. (He was also in The Hunted, but I forgive easily.) Katsu, the embodiment of the Zatoichi films, scarcely needs introducing — save to say that this was his last role before his death from cancer, and even though he’s clearly unwell he somehow makes that serve his performance all the more. Renji Ishibashi is not as well known outside of Japan, but I have been an admirer of his for a while and his résumé speaks for itself: Gozu, Alive, Dead or Alive, Audition, Ryoma, the 1994 version of 47 rōnin, and many more.
A blood-spattered climax is probably the rule for any samurai movie,
but Rōnin-gai finds ways to twist the formula and comment on it, too.
No samurai movie, however character-oriented, would be complete without a massive climactic fight, and Rōnin-gai does not let us down. Said blood-soaked fight features Aramaki and his cohorts facing off against something like fifty Shogunate guards (with Oshin’s life at stake, of course), but it doesn’t unfold or end in quite the way we’d expect. Most samurai movies demand that the heroes all die gloriously. Maybe one of the not-so-hidden themes of Rōnin-gai, set as it is in the dying years of samurai honor, is that it’s much harder to live for honor than die for it.
The DVD format has allowed an astounding number of samurai movies to come back into print in good-to-excellent editions — not just obvious perennials like Seven Samurai, but more of the samurai cinema Japan made for itself. The time is right, if you ask me. It’s now possible to see a film like this without much in the way of cultural notes and have a better idea of what’s going on simply because so many of the tropes of samurai-dom have worked their way into popular culture as a whole. Rōnin-gai is a good way to step off the beaten path and find out what the Japanese savor for themselves, and why. I enjoyed it both on its own terms, and for what its intended audience most likely saw in it as well.