Take a cast of stars, any of whom could fill a theater on their own, add a couple of Oscar winners — costume designer Emi Wada (“Ran,” 1985) and songwriter Ryuichi Sakamoto (“The Last Emperor,” 1987) — garnish with an A-list director (Kazuya Yamada), scriptwriter (Nozomi Makino) and art director (Yukio Horio), stir the emotions with a rousing tale of wronged ronin (masterless samurai) in the dying days of Japan’s feudal era, and what do you get?
Well, not cutting-edge drama, perhaps, but “Ronin Gai” is nonetheless guaranteed a sell-out run at the Aoyama Theatre in Tokyo.
But if you’re inclined to be cynical about the well-worn theme and big-name lineup, don’t be put off. This sumptious, two-hour staging is worth seeing — if only for the last 15 minutes, a chanbara (swordfighting) display in and around a small pool. It’s brilliant eye-candy, with no less than 30 handsome young specialist samurai actors serving up a stunning scene that’s both a symbol of youth’s scorn for an outdated, repressive regime and also the climax of the play’s central story of love (almost) lost.
The play is set in the last days of the Edo Period (1603-1867), when many young ronin were at the forefront of challenges to the Tokugawa Shogunate in Edo (present-day Tokyo). The hero is the ronin Gennai Aramaki (Toshiaki Karasawa), whose aimless existence is funded by his girlfriend Oshin (outstandingly played by Takako Matsu). When not working in an izakaya, Oshin supplements her income by picking pockets.
Aramaki has become increasingly disturbed not only about the state of the nation, but also his feelings toward Oshin. He recently re-encountered his first love, Chizuru (Misato Tanaka), now reduced to prostitution. (Years back, Aramaki killed Chizuru’s husband, his best friend, in a duel.) At the izakaya run by Tobei (Ryosei Tayama), Oshin’s guardian, we see Aramaki and fellow ronin Gonbei Horo (Tsuyoshi Ihara) and Yagouemon Akaushi (the rising young kabuki, movie and TV-drama star Shido Nakamura) spending their time drinking and grumbling.
The authorities, too, are feeling the strain as public disquiet mounts, and two sons of the area’s shogunal vassals, the Obata family, have turned to killing prostitutes to vent their frustrations and relish the sharpness of their swords. Then, one night, Tobei finds out who is behind these senseless murders and is himself killed — prompting Oshin to go to the Obata house with a gun to exact revenge.
Oshin is caught and the Obatas send a message to the ronin — whom they would dearly love to be rid of — stating that she will executed by being torn limb from limb unless they come and free her. Which brings us neatly to that climactic chanbara finale, as Aramaki (who’s realized he really does love Oshin), Horo and Akaushi rush to do battle against overwhelming odds.
Plots don’t get much more straightforward, but then as producer Yoichi Kawade says in the book-size program, his aim is simply “to create first-class entertainment that theatergoers from any generation can enjoy.”
That’s why, he says, he chose to mount a jidai geki (period drama) — a genre now enjoying a revival on stage, television and the big screen — since it’s a form that all Japanese hold dear. To distinguish his tale from all the rest, Kawade says, he opted for an ensemble cast packed with young stars instead of, as is usual, building the action around a single celebrity actor.
And with that final, tense chanbara scene — in which our kimono-clad trio of heroes survive innumerable wounds as they dispatch their foes amid jets of blood and splashy struggles in the pool — “Ronin Gai” succeeds magnificently in matching Kawade’s description. This isn’t high art, but it’s first-rate entertainment.