The early ’90s were not the best time for Japanese cinema, especially for jidai geki (period piece) films. There’s recently been something of a return to form for the genre, perhaps not in the grand action sense but certainly for the smaller, more contemplative film. Twilight Samurai (2002) is one such example, as is Taboo (1999). Ronin Gai was a predecessor to those two films and runs in a similar vein, focusing more on characters and plot than strict swordplay and action, although it ultimately has that as well.
Translated loosely as “Street of Masterless Samurai,” Ronin Gai tells the ensemble story of a poor neighborhood of Edo, the capital of Japan (today known as Tokyo) in the waning years of Shogunate rule. Everyone in the town—ronin, prostitutes and the occasional merchant—has a Lower Depths-like story of how they ended up at the bottom, and how they intend to climb back out.
Each character longs to rise above his current status, but is seemingly trapped by circumstance. Sakichi (Takuya Fujisaki), a former samurai of some ranking, raises birds to make due, and the smell of their droppings taints his skin. His lowly position is broadcast to the world around him via the bad odor, a constant reminder of his fall. Horo (Renji Ishibashi), a ronin who makes his living testing swords on recently executed criminals, is also tainted. Although the film doesn’t go into it, any contact with death in this society is taboo, making him a literal outcast. And Bull, played by Zatoichi himself, Shintaro Katsu, is the bouncer at the inn where much of the action takes place. He is so desirous of position that he debases himself to an arrogant lord just to be in a position of fealty.
Redemption finally comes, as it so often does in samurai films, through bloodshed. A band of shogunate retainers, led by Bull’s lord, have been murdering prostitutes in a self-righteous effort to clean up the world. When they capture Oshin (Kanako Higuchi), the favorite at the inn, and threaten to tear her apart with real bulls, our fallen protagonists all come to the rescue. Her womanizing lover Aramaki (Yoshio Harada) arrives drunk and carrying more swords than seems necessary, but quickly becomes a wild man, shirtless and reckless, cutting down samurai like he hadn’t just spent the whole movie loafing and drinking. The film becomes extremely violent, almost apocalyptically so, making up for lost time with flying, hacked limbs and spurting veins. Aramaki is joined by Bull, Horo and Magozoemon, and the forest runs red with samurai blood.
There’s a touching scene early in the film, wherein Bull is buying a bowl of noodles from a street merchant. “I used to be a samurai,” the noodle vendor confesses. He has given it up because samurai have become pushy and showy now that’s there are no more wars to fight. “But here, I fight every day. When people say my noodles are good, I win,” remarks the vendor to Bull, who is visibly moved by the tastiness of the noodles. The film seems to be saying that violence isn’t the only way to redemption and honor, but rather that there are many, like that of the noodle vendor. But for these formerly grand men, there is only the path of violence.
A satisfying, thought-provoking film.