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Slow burner, but delivers a worthy pay-off with patience
RONIN GAI, or "Masterless Samurai Street" if you prefer, can be seen as a precursor to films like TWILIGHT SAMURAI which focus on the tragic aspect of the samurai at the end of the era where they were the big shots. The film focuses on a small community of outcasts - former Samurai who are doing various menial jobs to earn their living (or just not) and prostitutes for the most part. They're a damaged bunch of people, and the men in particular are not very nice. Their lives are hardly peaceful and orderly to start off with, but they're messed up further when prostitutes start turning up dead - killed by a fairly expert sword, apparently.
RONIN GAI is a character-driven film, certainly not a murder mystery or any such thing, but a study of a group of people whose world no longer has a place for them. It's not a romantic or sympathetic view of the people, and for quite a while I was quite turned off by the film because I didn't actually like any of the main characters - then I realised that I wasn't really supposed to and stopped viewing it as a flaw or mistake, and enjoyed the rest of it a lot more.
Even though the film does contain some pretty gory violence, and a bit of very tame sex, it is still quite slow-paced and sedate. It deals with some pretty ugly people and situations, and can't be considered a cheerful or pleasant film, but it never uses the nastiness or violence in an "exploitation" style... it does actually want us to care for the characters, but isn't going to paint over their flaws to win us over. The fact we do care for them is a tribute to the strength of the writing and especially the acting, which is fantastic. Special mention must go to Shintaro Katsu in this regard, who gives a wonderful performance in what would turn out to be his final film.
The film is quite nicely shot, but has a bit of a "made for TV" feel to it that I couldn't really explain. It doesn't look low-budget, it's shot on film, and it's got lovely sets and costumes and whatnot... but still feels a bit TV movie-ish. Perhaps it's because it's only 16:9 widescreen, and I'm used to seeing Samurai films at full scope ratio? Or it might have been the sound design and music, which seemed a bit too modern for the period setting.
It definitely took a while for RONIN GAI to win me over, because it builds its characters and its world slowly and delicately, with subtle details and touches. It wasn't the film I was expecting it to be (whatever that was), so perhaps it was a while before I adjusted my critical gaze to look at its actual strengths rather than the strengths I'd expected to find. At some point in the film I realised I was liking it quite a lot though, and by the end it was a very satisfying experience.
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