Saturday 2 January 2010

Ronin-gai (1990)

Director: Kazuo Kuroki
Stars: Yoshio Harada, Kanako Higuchi and Shintaro Katsu
Produced in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the death of Shozo Makino, generally regarded as the father of Japanese cinema, this is a remake of the last film he worked on, one of a number of Ronin-gai movies made in the late twenties by his son Masahiro Makino, Shozo being the supervising director. Shozo Makino was a prolific man, directing over two hundred movies within a twenty year period between 1908 and 1929, most featuring the kabuki actor Matsunosuke Onoe, who racked up an amazing 900 plus films in roughly the same period. Onoe died in 1926, Makino in 1929. This is a fine choice of material for a tribute, as Makino had virtually invented the period Japanese film and this is certainly that. Ronin-gai translates to Street of Masterless Samurai, ronin being samurai who had lost their masters, usually through their death or fall from grace.

It looks good from moment one, shot with style and an impressive use of colour, but it's difficult to work out what the story is trying to tell us, perhaps because by being inherently about confusion it has difficulty in avoiding being confusion itself. What we're really watching is the rise and fall of a whole host of characters, their rise or fall being directly tied to their success in adapting to a change of era. This is 1836 so we're in the Edo period under the Tokugawa shogunate, right at a moment of crisis in Japanese history. There were famines and natural disasters in the 1830s along with general unrest which led to a peasant uprising in Osaka in 1837. The reaction to this was an attempt to suppress many of the freedoms that the Edo period had brought, which just wasn't going to work and left the country rather schizophrenic until Commodore Perry arrived with his black ships in 1854 to reopen Japan to foreigners and power was restored to the emperor under the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

Here, we're centered around a restaurant/brothel on the outskirts of Edo, the nation's capital, a point of congregation for drunkards, prostitutes and ronin, none of whom seem to be able to really deal with the changing times. The only character who has a grip is a noodle seller who quit being a samurai because he saw them as no longer having purpose, the feudal era of perpetual clan warfare being gone, and so his fights are to convince people of the good taste of his Osaka style noodles. The characters are many and it's difficult at first to determine who we really should be watching, but the key player seems to be Oshin, a samurai's daughter who is now a high priced prostitute.

Everyone is in love with her, including three notable ronin. Tanomo Gonbei, better known as Horo, is a melancholy ronin played with subdued elegance by Renji Ishibashi. He lives better than his peers because he demeans himself by testing new swords on corpses for the rich and important. Aramaki Gennai is a former boyfriend of Oshin's who arrives drunk from another town to reclaim her, and promptly does nothing except indulge in her favours, whether they be sexual or financial. He spends most of his time drunk but retains a powerful presence, through the charisma of actor Yoshio Harada, who is almost aboriginal here. Finally there's Akaushi Yagoemon, known as Bull, a huge man who serves variously as bodyguard, bouncer and teacher to the whores. He's played by the great Shintaro Katsu, in his last film before his death seven years later.

Only one of the local ronin fails to revolve his life around Oshin. He's Doi Magozaemon, who became ronin through personal duty and sacrifice and now makes a pretty poor living selling birds. He's no different from the others in his ache to return to his clan and meaningful employment, but is more overt in his anguish, perhaps because he has a definable way back that is merely blocked to him because he doesn't have 100 ryo to bribe the appropriate high officials. All of them are lost in a world of peace and as we find generally would stoop to pretty low depths to return to the life they see as the only one they really understand. One becomes a thief and murderer, another imitates a dog on demand for a 50 koku salary.
Yet there's an opportunity for redemption through a story arc that plays like the opposite of The Seven Samurai. There are seven samurai here too, direct retainers of the Shogun, but they're hardly honourable men. 'The world is getting filthy and rotten,' they say as they slaughter whores and make us wonder for a while if this film is going to become a serial killer story or a murder mystery. So instead of the samurai coming to the rescue of a town, the samurai are the cause of its sorrow and a ragtag bunch of ronin have to overcome their personal conflicts to save the day. It's this depth of character that is at once the most emphatic success of the film and the reason why it almost fails before it even gets going.

Beginning, like many jidaigeki films, with a sword fight, one set outside during a torrential downpour no less, it immediately backs away from what we think it's going to be. We don't know who's fighting, it's over with a couple of blows and we watch it from a curiously far distance. Then we meet the main characters, but so slowly that it takes quite a while for us to work out who we're actually supposed to be watching. Initially it's Bull Akaushi but just as we start to learn about who he is, he disappears as if he isn't important at all. There's an elaborate setup to introduce Gennai Aramaki, but it feels like a joke stolen of its punchline, so that we wonder if we were really supposed to be watching him to begin with. Part of the reason is that the story requires us to discover these characters in their worthless states, leaving the filmmakers with the unenviable task of trying to make us watch characters who aren't worth watching.

It builds well, once we work out what is really going on and what the thrust of the story is actually going to be, until we somehow arrive at a truly bizarre battle at the end to wrap everything up. Horo rushes to save the woman he loves, already prepared for death by dressing in white, which promptly turns red. Magozaemon dons the full set of armour that has sat languishing in his closet for years, finding his redemption. Gennai is first there, laden with swords, to face down overwhelming numbers and flounder around with an insane sense of balance. Bull, who was already there under different circumstances, gets a twisted final scene, that serves to satisfy both his sense of duty to his master and his sense of personal honour to his town, while also closing the career of one of Japan's great actors in a single powerful stroke. This is certainly not his finest film, it isn't even close, but it's a fine role for him and so worthy of being his last.

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