Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Shochiku's Ronin Gai is a handsome attempt to recreate the emotional charge of
classic swordplay dramas, most notably Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. A quartet of de-classed warriors
wallows in self-pity until a finale that inspires them to once again do honorable battle. The film has
interesting characterizations and attractive color cinematography, yet despite its origins seems like
a belated attempt to graft American-style action formulas onto a Japanese staple.
The film marks the final appearance of Shintaro Katsu, the hero of dozens of Zatoichi blind swordsman films.
A small inn is the gathering place for prostitutes and masterless ex-samurai set adrift by the
downsizing of clans under Shogunate power. Gennai
(Yoshio Harada) is a longhaired, wild-eyed troublemaker who lives from the earnings of prostitute Oshin
(Kanako Higuchi). She's admired from afar by Horo
(Renji Ishibashi), another penniless warrior who can only find work testing new swords by splitting
fresh corpses. Yet another impoverished swordsman raises smelly birds that don't sell, while his sister Obun
(Kaoru Sugita) tries to find him a job with one of the local lords. At the inn is a stocky bouncer named Bull
(Shintaro Katsu), who teaches the prostitutes how to write but hides from dangerous confrontations.
The death-obsessed losers at first try to ignore a spate of bloody killings. Will they rise to the
Ronin Gai begins with a dedication to Shozo Makino, a silent filmmaker who introduced western
techniques to Japanese film. The story was filmed at least four times, one of them by Makino's son
in the late 1920s. On this 1990 production the most powerful influence is one of its stars, Shintaro
Katsu of Zatoichi blind swordsman fame. The liner notes essay by Mark Pollard explains that
not only was filming delayed so that Katsu could participate, he also held up the set whenever he
wanted to hear the racing results over the radio.
The story is a lively if predictable conflict of once-noble men reduced to humiliating poverty. They brawl,
cheat and suffer in shame. Gennai has lowered himself to living from the earnings of Oshin, and heaps
abuse upon her while refusing to give her up. Horo also lusts after Oshin but hasn't the nerve to claim
her for his own. The lowly bird breeder gives his sister Obun a hard time for trying to help him - even
if he were to receive a commission from a lord, he could never afford the expensive bribes needed to
purchase the office.
The story builds with a series of bloody sword murders of prostitutes, and it doesn't take long to
discover that the culprits are a group of depraved samurai seeking sport by killing "unclean" women.
Just as in a western, our fallen heroes look the other way until the stakes get too high, at which point
both they and we are good and ready for a showdown.
To save the women of his reading class, Bull sells himself into abject servility to one of the evil
samurai, who enjoys watching him fetch sticks and bark like a dog. It is Bull who suggests the barbaric
death for their latest prisoner, Oshin: to be drawn to pieces between two oxen. But Bull is buying time,
hoping that Oshin's lovers Gennai and Horo will come to the rescue.
The final battle is a satisfactory melee marked by Gennai's wild contortions and the sight of Horo's
white robe being splashed with enemy blood. The staging is vigorous enough but the fight is the generic
kind that features scores of bad guys who encircle a hero only to unaccountably attack him one at a time,
as if waiting for their turn to die. None can be bothered to stab their outnumbered prey when his
back is turned. For this reviewer the best 'one against many' samurai battles are those that
take place in confined spaces.
All four heroes find noble destinies, with Bull recouping his honor in a deliciously outrageous way.
(spoiler) Sworn by oath to shield his unworthy master, he stabs him to death on the tip of a sword that
he first runs through himself! The maintenance of personal honor can be very painful.
Modern viewers surely responded to Ronin Gai as a solid action drama and not as a traditional
story like Chushingura. The unwashed ex-samurai heroes are fun to watch, particularly Katsu and
Yoshio Harada. One of them straps on his armor again and charges into battle atop a workhorse. That
must have been an audience-pleasing moment.
Home Vision Entertainment's DVD of Ronin Gai is a fine-looking disc with excellent color; even
night scenes have depth and detail. The lively soundtrack helps us feel the din of the frequent downpours
and allows us to appreciate a blind biwa musician as he provides an accompaniment for the final battle.
There are no video extras but Mark Pollard's liner notes lay out the essential historical background.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Ronin Gai rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 21, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson