Ronin Gai (1990, Kazuo Kuroki)

Random samurai movie watched on Criterion’s Hulu channel when it was free for a week – thought I’d pick something unlikely to come out on DVD anytime soon, since I’d never heard of the movie or director. It was surprisingly excellent, with assured, quality filmmaking and an exciting, complicated story – handily better than the Samurai trilogy.

1836: Bull, rough-looking with short black beard, is an ex-samurai so poor he lets people beat him up for money. He, drunken pimp Gennai and slightly more respectable Horo end up drinking together after a fight had seemed inevitable, turns out they’re all in love with one of the bar girls Oshin. Now, it gets a bit hard to follow because the main girls in the film are named Oshin, Osen, Obun, Otoku and Oyo – I tried to remember Osen as the “o-girl” for about ten minutes before realizing my mistake.

A dead woman is discovered:

Anyway, everyone is poor, struggling to survive in general, but now a group of rich moralists are killing girls every night. Bull acts as the women’s caretaker, is teaching them to read, and takes the murders very personally. And all the men would like to join the local clan, because then they’d get a salary. Local birdseller Doi’s sister Obun goes to the clan bosses to interfere in her brother’s behalf, essentially joins the prostitutes. Gennai starts dallying with rich clan woman Oyo, and Bull gets a job as a “dog”, servant to one of the seven asshole clansmen who turn out to be the murderers, eventually kills Oyo for his master. The clansmen decide to rip Oshin apart with bulls attached to ropes, and somehow the other two guys find out in time, come over and kill about fifty guys in the big climactic battle. Bull isn’t gonna get an easy out after slaying that woman, stabs through himself to kill his master. Postscript: Oshin leaves town with Gennai, Obun takes over the bar, and all surviving clan samurai are asked to commit harakiri for disgracing the shogun.

Oshin, about to be rescued:

Bull killing his master:

Director Kuroki died in 2006, made Evil Spirits of Japan in 1970. From the screenwriter of the Yakuza Papers series, based on a novel previously adapted in the 1920’s as a whole series of films. Nominated for a pile of Japanese academy awards, mostly beaten by Shinoda’s Childhood Days and Kohei Oguri’s The Sting of Death (though they also nominated Die Hard 2 for best foreign film, so it’s not clear they can be trusted).

Shintaro Katsu (Bull)’s final film – he was Zatoichi, Hanzo the Razor, and star of Man Without a Map. Gennai was Yoshio Harada, also of Manji and Farewell to the Ark. Young Oshin was Kanako Higuchi, the young painter’s mom in Achilles and the Tortoise, Obun was Kaoru Sugita, Sho Aikawa’s wife in Dead or Alive and Otoku was Moeko Ezawa of Kitano’s Getting Any?