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  • Warning: Spoilers
    (Some spoilers)

    Kuroki's 1990 version of Rônin-gai (aka: Street Of The Masterless Samurai) is the fourth film with this name to appear since the 1920s and is generally taken as one of this director's best films, although he is not a name widely known in the west. Rônin-gai was made in commemoration of the death of Shozo Makino, a pioneer of early Nipponese cinema. Again largely unknown to occidentals, Makino is credited with virtually creating the Japanese period film. Kuroki's film is an apt tribute, as it is both an interesting contribution to the 'chambera', or swordplay, genre as well as presenting memorable portraits of several flawed characters.

    Set in the transitional historical period between the Japanese feudal era and the impending Meji Restoration (when the country was more and more opened up to the west) Rônin-gai concerns a disparate group based around an eating house/brothel on the outskirts of Edo. As the film starts, Aramaki Gennai, a wild haired, unstable ronin, played by Yoshio Harada and reminiscent of Toshiro Mifune's Kikuchiyo from The Seven Samurai, arrives and drunkenly tries to take up again with high-priced prostitute Oshin (Kanako Higuchi). At the same time she is the object of desire for another ronin, Horo (Renji Ishibashi), and has a further protector in the form of 'Bull' a stocky bouncer at the eatery, in general charge of the whores who congregate there. Close by, another displaced warrior Doi ekes out a humiliating existence as a miserable bird breeder with his sister, and dreams of rejoining his clan. While this assortment of social misfits and outcasts contemplate their decline, a group of murderous samurai begin paying the community attention.

    Apparently inspired to choose film making as a career by the work of Kurosawa, Kazuo reveals the influence of the older master in this film by showing a similar attention to historical detail, an interest in characterisation, as well as a storyline with humanistic undertones. As the film begins we are confronted by a motley group of prostitutes, drunkards and pitiful ronin, self-pitying and unlikeable. This is a society patently caught between the social regimentation of the previous centuries, where all knew their place, and the breakdowns of coming liberalisation. Those who are stranded between the two worlds are disillusioned and dissatisfied, while the erstwhile respectable caste of still-employed samurai turn out to be murderers and fanatics.

    Kazuo's achievement is to convey his unlikely heroes' ultimate nobility, as they are stirred to fight the samurai who prey on them. (In a way this is an ironic reversal of The Seven Samurai scenario, where brave ronin are hired to defeat bandits.) Thus while we see Oshin as initially frivolous, and Gennai a drunkard insensitive to the killings it is he who launches the first, and most impressive fight back. While Gombei is emasculated in his secret admiration for Oshin, and as a result of it faces humiliation, he acquires pride and purpose in defence of her. When the gruff Bull abandons his pride and sells his soul to the samurai, in the most shameless moral regression of all, he acts more like a dog than a man. His final act, though fortified with drink, is more honourable. Doi, who has actually managed to earn a living, starts out bitter, obsessed with purchasing his return to favour with the clan. He condemns his supportive sister while dreaming of recovering his station and obtains the money he needs by shameful means. By the end of the film, although slightly absurd in his actions (Don Quixote briefly springs to mind as he belatedly armours up) Doi, too, has gained something back.

    Rônin-gai depicts a society that is seeing the degrading of social bonds and responsibilities that have stood for centuries, a sense of confusion conveyed well in the opening scenes. This is not the wild disorientation of a film like Ran however - rather the gradual erosion of bonds and honour at the end of an era. For a while at the start it is hard to discover who owns fealty to whom, as a samurai is killed in the rain, seen in long shot so that signs of rank are hard to see and has his sword stolen, while Aramaki picks a drunken argument with Bull. We barely hear of the central Shogunate power, responsible for the rogue samurai who are causing the murders (although it does step in at the end, we are told, to punish the guilty). Like Oshin at the point of being torn apart by bulls as part of the rogue samurais' cruelty, this Japan risks dislocation. One wonders if the upheavals of the modern country, as the 'economic miracle' slowed down, had a role to play in the choice of subject.

    Kuroki's film was his last for a decade (Pickpocket followed in 2000) and in many ways it was a good project with which to signal a creative pause. By explicitly honouring the cinematic past as well as implicitly incorporating the insecurities of the present into a single project, he gives a familiar plot new life while creating an excellent work its own right. To those who just wish to enjoy some excellent sword fighting this can be recommended too, although it principally occurs at the end.
  • RONIN GAI, or "Masterless Samurai Street" if you prefer, can be seen as a precursor to films like TWILIGHT SAMURAI which focus on the tragic aspect of the samurai at the end of the era where they were the big shots. The film focuses on a small community of outcasts - former Samurai who are doing various menial jobs to earn their living (or just not) and prostitutes for the most part. They're a damaged bunch of people, and the men in particular are not very nice. Their lives are hardly peaceful and orderly to start off with, but they're messed up further when prostitutes start turning up dead - killed by a fairly expert sword, apparently.

    RONIN GAI is a character-driven film, certainly not a murder mystery or any such thing, but a study of a group of people whose world no longer has a place for them. It's not a romantic or sympathetic view of the people, and for quite a while I was quite turned off by the film because I didn't actually like any of the main characters - then I realised that I wasn't really supposed to and stopped viewing it as a flaw or mistake, and enjoyed the rest of it a lot more.

    Even though the film does contain some pretty gory violence, and a bit of very tame sex, it is still quite slow-paced and sedate. It deals with some pretty ugly people and situations, and can't be considered a cheerful or pleasant film, but it never uses the nastiness or violence in an "exploitation" style... it does actually want us to care for the characters, but isn't going to paint over their flaws to win us over. The fact we do care for them is a tribute to the strength of the writing and especially the acting, which is fantastic. Special mention must go to Shintaro Katsu in this regard, who gives a wonderful performance in what would turn out to be his final film.

    The film is quite nicely shot, but has a bit of a "made for TV" feel to it that I couldn't really explain. It doesn't look low-budget, it's shot on film, and it's got lovely sets and costumes and whatnot... but still feels a bit TV movie-ish. Perhaps it's because it's only 16:9 widescreen, and I'm used to seeing Samurai films at full scope ratio? Or it might have been the sound design and music, which seemed a bit too modern for the period setting.

    It definitely took a while for RONIN GAI to win me over, because it builds its characters and its world slowly and delicately, with subtle details and touches. It wasn't the film I was expecting it to be (whatever that was), so perhaps it was a while before I adjusted my critical gaze to look at its actual strengths rather than the strengths I'd expected to find. At some point in the film I realised I was liking it quite a lot though, and by the end it was a very satisfying experience.

    8/10
  • This is a character driven movie in which the plot is only corollary to the actual story of a group of characters thrown together in a small town. The marginal plot involves retainers of the Shogun killing prostitutes, but what make this a memorable movie are the characters: 'Bull' - a belligerent drunken bouncer for a drinking establishment who is the spitting image (in spirit) of Toshiro Mifune - 'Aramaki' - an uncouth and dirty ronin and pimp who looks like a Japanese Benicio Del Toro - Oshin - a prostitute and barmaid - Sakichi - who is a former vassal of the local lord who sells birds for a living, and smells eternally of bird droppings, and Horo - who makes his living testing swords on dead convicts. I recommend it if you are tired of the typical range of Samurai movies, and just want an entertaining, well acted drama that just happens to have Samurai with cutting instruments.
  • This film focuses on the period when the Samurai were disappearing and Japan was becoming Westernized.

    I takes place in a village where master-less ronin spend their time eking out a living, and prostitutes are the main characters. We meet people like Aramaki Gennai (Yoshio Harada) who is most un-samurai like, and seems to be mad, or Doi, a former samurai who raises birds, or Bull (Shintarô Katsu) the bouncer.

    The beautiful prostitute Oshin (Kanako Higuchi) is strangely tied to Aramaki, while Horo (Renji Ishibashi) is madly in love with her, but afraid to take her away.

    It is a story about characters, not action, although action will soon be a part for those who hang in there.

    Soon, some outsiders (seven samurai) start killing off the prostitutes, and the master-less samurai are forced to act like samurai again to save the village, especially when they tie two bulls to Oshin's legs to rip her apart.

    A beautiful film with all the bloody action at the end.

    Great acting by Kanako Higuchi, Renji Ishibashi, and Yoshio Harada.
  • dbborroughs11 November 2008
    Warning: Spoilers
    Beautiful to look at Samurai film concerning a bunch of masterless swordsmen who end up protecting a brothel and tavern from some bad ass samurai. more meditative then flat out action film this is a film of characters and ideas. yes there is action but the effects of events have weight because we care about the people. I picked the DVD up a while ago but never sat down to see it until tonight. I've been running across the film on Kung Fu on Mojo HD and could never piece it all together. Running across the film in my movie case I pulled it out and watched a good portion of it tying together the knots of plot. I like the film a great deal. Its not perfect and it wouldn't be on my all time favorite list but it is a good two hours that I wouldn't mind revisiting at a later time. Its worth a look especially if you're willing to be patient with how the story unfolds.
  • My review may be biased because I love samurai flicks, & I BLOODSHED love Director Kazuo Kuroki and I will BLOODSHED forever love (& mourn) Katsu "Zatoichi" Shintaro....One of the greatest Japanese actors BLOODSHED of all time, (next to The Magnificent Toshiro Mifune, & the Brilliant Tatsuya Nakadai of course!) All that aside, this BLOODSHED movie can be enjoyed on many levels: Comedy, Drama, Romance, and last but not least...Action!

    Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention...LOTS OF BLOODSHED, but you'll have to have patience, 'cuz it's like the icing on the cake here.

    I will definitely be BLOODSHED adding this gem to my ever growing library! And another thing... The only bad "Zatoichi" movie that I've seen is the one made recently by Beat Takashi...it sucked! Long Live Katsu Shintaro R.I.P.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    Street Of The Masterless Samurai is a standard samurai saga, rather different from the previous film I'd seen by its director, the interesting 1966 documentary, Silence Has No Wings. It opens with swordplay in the rain and climaxes with the violent spectacle of a small group of ronin coming to the aid of a whore in the forest, grotesquely held down between two bulls who are about to tear her apart. (Is this the Japanese equivalent of the melodramatic heroine tied to the railroad tracks?)One of them is even got up in full body armor and riding a horse. In between though there is little action, as the ronin who linger in a countryside roadhouse can't rise to the challenge of a sinister entourage of samurai who dress up at night masked in blue (almost like the KKK!) to terrorize several local women who are struggling to make ends meet as prostitutes.The setting is 1836, during the last decades of an apparently corrupt Shogunate.The most vividly etched of these tavern characters is "Bull," a yojimbo or bouncer, who appears burly and tough but later instead of fighting the arrogant samurai that he looks like he's going to duel, sells himself to them out of desperation and even degrades himself by crouching like a dog and retrieving a sandal for one. In the end he will redeem himself by committing suicide and bringing down his boss with him. This character,by turns comic, pathetic, and tragic, is played in his last screen role by Shin Katsu, famous for his earlier Zatoichi vehicles,and even if the film isn't all it could be, it's worth seeing for his acting.
  • nebbs28 May 2005
    With a storyline that has so much promise, and as a tribute to the father of its genre (chambera/jidai-geki), I found this version of Ronin Gai to be both weak and disappointing. The editing and camera-work were dull, close-ups that were cried out for failed to materialize, the incidental music was irrelevant, and characterizations while promising, never attained their potential. The director was supposedly inspired to become such by Kurosawa's work, but aside from a few half-hearted rip-offs there is absolutely nothing of that great director's magic here. This is a bland samurai film in the extreme, and very disappointing.