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.
As they are eventually stirred in combination, fighting the samurai preying on them, Kazuo's achievement is to convey his unlikely heroes' ultimate nobility. (In one way this is an ironic reversal of The Seven Samurai scenario, where brave samurai 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 Ran however, rather the gradually erosion of bonds and honour at the end of an era. For a while 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.
The DVD includes trailers and subtitle options.