At the start of “Rônin-gai,” a title card appears stating it was made to honor the 60th anniversary of the death of Shozo Makino, who made such early jidai-geki films as “The Purple Hood: Woodblock Artist” (1923) and “The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin: A True Account” (1928). Though it may be a tribute, the film also feels like a revision of sorts as it follows a collection of down-and-out characters in a small town near Edo in 1836.
Three men occupy the most attention in the film. Gennai Aramaki (Yoshio Harada) is a long-haired, broke ronin who is accurately referred to as a “vermin samurai.” Horo (a barely recognizable Renji Ishibashi), another ronin, possesses a more solemn, respectable demeanor. They are often in the company of “Bull” Akaushi (Shintarô Katsu), a giant, bearded regular at the local inn who harbors thoughts of suicide. They all spend most of their time getting hammered on sake and visiting the town’s prostitutes, who are suddenly threatened by a series of brutal murders. The main love interest is a woman named Oshin (Kanako Higuchi), who is caught in a bad relationship with Aramaki while Horo falls head over heels in love with her.
While “Rônin-gai” is given an undercurrent of mystery from the prostitute slayings, which are carried out by a band of blue-cloaked samurai retainers to the shogun, director Kazuo Kuroki is more concerned with observing the film’s many interesting characters and their respective plights. The world they inhabit is very much of the “lower depths” variety, with work and money frequently discussed and sought after. While fearful for their safety, the prostitutes also worry about being kept from earning their living. Bull becomes so desperate for a real job that he humiliates himself at the bullying retainers’ command for fifty koku of rice. One plot thread follows Magoza (Tanaka Kunie), a lowly bird dealer who considers selling his own sister to get a large sum of money he desperately needs. However, the most telling signs of poverty can be found in the ronin. Masterless and often dirty and drunk, Aramaki and Horo, in their individual ways, stick out as a strong contrast to the “official” samurai who bring their despotic authority upon the town. Set a few decades before the arrival of the Meiji era, the film examines the samurai class and, more importantly, mentality at a time when its image was undergoing drastic change.
All of the main actors are fascinating to watch, mainly because they are given such good material to work with. Yoshio Harada’s Aramaki is strongly reminiscent of Toshirô Mifune as he swaggers and growls from one scene to another, steadily drinking and lustfully pursuing Oshin. As Bull, Shintarô Katsu captivatingly wavers between crushing depression, joviality and dignified seriousness. He shares one great scene with a former samurai-turned-noodle vendor who amazes Bull with his Osaka-style noodles, promptly renamed “samurai noodles.” The film’s slow yet steady buildup culminates in a classic finale: after Oshin is captured by the samurai, Aramaki staggers off to rescue her from a terrible execution. Drunk off his ass and festooned with katanas, he is joined by Horo and Magoza for a terrific, perfectly cathartic sequence of heroic action.
“Rônin-gai” contains many elements one would find in Akira Kurosawa’s studies of samurai and ronin, but approached from a slightly different angle. Its confident direction, steady pacing and compassionate study of society’s outcasts make it a fresh and greatly enjoyable take on the jidai-geki genre.