Friday, May 14, 2010

Roningai no kaoyaku (1963)

aka A Brave Ronin

aka Street of Wandering Men

The freshly minted ronin Tsugumi (Utaemon Ichikawa) has just arrived in Edo and is already following his perfectly developed sense of being a good guy into trouble. He helps hide a Geisha named Somekichi from a group of yakuza who are trying to catch her. It seems Somekichi has learned a bit too much about the plans of the Hanya yakuza during her professional duties, but what exactly it is she knows the audience will learn only much later.

Both Tsugumo and Somekichi need a cheap and inconspicuous place to stay, and become neighbours in a low-rent boarding house frequented by down-on-their-luck ronin. Obviously, it will not be the samurai's only run-in with the Hanya. Even when - after some altercations with the yakuza - Somekichi is seemingly safe, Tsugumi still manages to get into the gangsters' way.

Without knowing of a connection to the gang, he helps another ronin, the sad alcoholic Fujimura, to get his sister back from the clutches of corrupt, lecherous officials. Fujimura has basically sold his virginal sister to the morally deviant ones, but has an awakening of conscience before anything truly bad can happen to her. Unfortunately, the sad little man lacks the imposing character needed to get her back. Tsugumi has that type of character in spades, and has no problems bringing the girl back home. Ironically, this again disturbs the plan of his least favourite yakuza clan, for they had wanted to use Fujimura's sister as a very special bribe. At least, everyone not a yakuza is happy.

Most people not Tsugumi or his new-found group of friends would probably flee the area and move into the turf of a different yakuza group, but Tsugumi is not going to go the easy way.

Formally, Rojingai no kaoyaku is quite a conservative film and must already have looked a bit old-fashioned to eyes witnessing the explosion in creativity that had just begun to drive the various sub-genres of the samurai film into fascinating visual and political directions, an explosion that wouldn't stop until the beginning of the 80s (the most dreadful decade in Japanese genre film, if you ask me). Compared with the films of this beginning new wave, Rojingai isn't much too look at - director Yasushi Sasaki tries his best to not let his set-bound film look too stagey, but even though the camera is moving, there's a stiffness and staticness to the film's look that lets it feel older than it actually is. Sasaki still manages to stage quite a dramatic climax, although the absence of cutting sound effects and visible blood looks a bit quaint to eyes used to the bloodier and louder side of the samurai film.

The predominant acting style is similarly old-fashioned, again a bit stagey, a bit stiff, yet working perfectly nice if one is able to accept the rules it works by. Naturalism certainly isn't the only effect acting can be trying to achieve.

Ichikawa is undeniably charismatic, and his Tsugumi is likeable and surprisingly understanding of other people's weaknesses for one not prone to being openly weak himself. Films with morally upright main characters often tend to overlook how annoying - and, frankly, inhuman - preachy heroes who look down on everyone who isn't as perfect as they are can become, so it is nice to find a film that understands that it is helpful to make one's superhuman hero still feel human. Tsugumi doesn't help people because he feels superior to them, but because he can (and is driven to out of a sense of duty more interested in serving a community than a lord he doesn't have anymore). It seems like quite a humanist view for a film that looks this old-fashioned, but I haven't seen enough chambara or jidai geki films made before 1962 to tell if this humanism is based on a connection to more progressive ways of thinking particular to the film, or its director or star, or if it is typical for the state of the genre. If someone more knowledgeable could enlighten me regarding this point, I would be more than thankful.

Watching the film, I at times had the feeling of witnessing a less bourgeois Japanese Frank Capra movie with sword fights. The film is full of the belief that a group of the poor, the weak, and the disenfranchised can stand up to the mighty and corrupt and win against them through the virtue of the goodness of their hearts, which mirrors the basic goodness of the universe. On one level, this is of course incredibly naive and baselessly optimistic, yet I for one am not going to criticize a film for having a positive outlook on the possibility of change from below, even if it can show us this change only through a heroic figure standing out from and inspiring the masses with the quality of his character. I'd love to compare the film's world view to the one of the novel it is based on, or to that of the half a dozen other movie adaptations of it, but, again, I'm coming up empty by virtue of not having a clue (and don't just want to copy stuff I read on the 'net and pretend to know what I'm talking about).

So, while Roningai no kaoyaku is not too much to look at, it still is a very enjoyable film; a feelgood chambara.


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