When you think about it, westerns and samurai flicks aren’t all that different. Both genres tend to feature romanticized heroes who fight by codes of honor in lawless lands, protecting the innocent no matter what the cost and always saving the showdown with the big, bad villain for the very end. The idea behind Ronin Gai intrigued me, for it seemed to promise a film that stripped away that samurai mystique, showing what happened to these proud warriors when there were no more battles left to fight. But for as sound a premise as it carries around, Ronin Gai does little justice to its potential, presenting a drab and humorless requiem for the samurai genre instead of celebrating what made it so endearing in the first place.
Our story begins in 1836, when the samurai’s glory days have long since passed. Years of peace have forced these men of honor to spend their remaining days boozing up and resorting to whatever means possible to maintain a steady income. Ronin Gai centers on a particular restaurant/house of ill repute that’s become something of a magnet for such wandering ronin. Bull (Shintaro Katsu) has appointed himself de facto bouncer and protector of the brothel’s beautiful employees. Washed-up warrior Gennai (Yoshio Harada) depends on pricey courtesan Oshin (Kanako Higuchi) to support his boorish ways, while Horo (Renji Ishibashi) harbors an unrequited love for her from the sidelines. But their shared serenity is soon shattered by a string of brutal murders, prostitutes slashed up by a group of mystery men lurking about the area. The three men’s paths diverge in the wake of the killings, but those who decide to take action and put an end to the slaughter find themselves in a tough spot when it turns out the killers are a group of retainers who may be bending to the whim of the shogunate.
The first thing that came to mind while watching Ronin Gai was Rocky Balboa. In the same way that the prospect of an up-and-coming challenger reinvigorated Rocky’s fighting spirit, the marauding samurai do the same for the ronin, inspiring them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do something besides guzzle sake by the truckload. But while this is the path that Ronin Gai did end up taking, it took a while to get there — like about three-quarters of the running time. Rather than witnessing a band of former samurai rediscovering their purpose for being, it’s like watching a bunch of washed-up jocks bitch and moan about how they blew the big game back in high school, and instead of doing anything about it, they decide to drink away their sorrows. I don’t mind this aspect of the characters’ personalities, but it’s prolonged and shoved down our throats for so long, you start to wonder how many hookers have to die before these guys go, “You know, we should do something.”
Ronin Gai has all the energy of a wake, as the filmmakers are so busy mourning the samurai’s heyday, they pass up the chance to transform the flick into the ultimate tribute. Sure, there’s some epic and quite bloody swordplay, but it’s only in one sequence, and it takes place mere minutes before the final credits roll. I realize the story is meant to be darker than standard samurai fare, but it would’ve helped to know that the artists at work here had at least something resembling a sense of humor. The performances help boast the depressing material, though even still, there are a few instances of off-key acting. Shintaro Katsu needs no introduction, having proved himself one of the greatest icons of Japanese cinema with the Zatoichi series and cult cinema with the Hanzo the Razor trilogy. He does solid work here as the most morally ambiguous of the ronin, torn between protecting the women who’ve provided for him for years and turning to the homicidal retainers for a much-needed job. Renji Ishibashi handles himself well as the noble Horo, while Yoshio Harada is downright tiresome as the loutish and unfaithful Gennai, whose stumbling-around in the final battle makes you wonder whether he’s seriously wounded or just drunk off his heinder.
For as much venom as I’ve slung towards Ronin Gai, it’s not an all-around terrible film. The performances are mostly fine, the environment is appropriately moody, and whenever the story’s not bashing its themes into your skull, it’s still a fairly fascinating look into a samurai’s world. But for what should have been a sign that the samurai film would soon rise again, Ronin Gai makes it feel like it’s down for the count.