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ronin.

May 27, 2011

Welcome to another fun-filled adventure.. a wild ride into another of my convoluted jungle excursions.. a blog entry filled with digressions and diversions. Expect to learn a lot, though.

Today’s topics.. the movie “Ronin,” a little about its cast, and various and sundry other things which my subconscious knows I’m going to write about.. but my conscious mind does not.

What I do is have a general idea of what I want to write about, in this case.. one of the best action movies ever.. and then.. wander off from there, and bring it all back by the end of the entry.. I promise.. stick with me.. you’ll be glad you did.

By the way… what is the difference between “subconscious” and “unconscious?” I’ve taken many psychology classes.. but those were back in the ’90’s, and this entry is not on psychology, the subjects are movies.. and stuff. Food for thought.. and a later post.. I need to do more research before I get into psychology..

Right then.. the word “ronin.”

If you are student and/or enthusiast of Japanese culture, as I was for many years, you will already know what the word “ronin” means.

But for the rest of you..

Let me take you back to feudal Japan.. At the top of Japanese society, symbolically, was the Emperor. But the real power, the power behind the throne, was the man who had the title of “shogun.”

Yes, there is a book and miniseries with that title. The book is very long. I’ve read half of it. An interesting book, hard to follow at times, but worth the read. I just didn’t feel like finishing it.. I will get back to it eventually, but may have to start over..

The “Shogun” miniseries.. only got through a little of it.. I saw it back in the 1980’s, and the main thing I remember is a nude Japanese woman joining a man in a wooden bath tub. Not all of her could be seen, of course, being that this was a TV miniseries, but still.. for a horny kid.. and what 12 year old kid is not horny.. this was a big deal..

I told you I would digress.. I do this on purpose. I could stay completely on topic if I wanted to.. but I wrote an incredible amount of papers during my seven years of full-time college work. Those papers were occasionally slightly enjoyable to write, but I of course had to stay on topic. I don’t have to follow the same rules when writing this blog, and I write these things for fun.. if my method is too distracting for you.. you might want to find a blog in which the entries are much less circuitous than my posts, and more easy to follow, but also perhaps are quite stuffy and less interesting..Gosh, that’s rather snide of me, isn’t it.. there are hundreds of thousands of bloggers out there who can both stay on topic, and write interesting material.

But I am not them, and I do my own thing, thank you very much indeed.

Now then.. Ok.. so the shogun had the real power, not the emperor.

Below the shogun were various lords.. nobles etc. There was a hierarchy of nobles.. some were more prominent than others.. During various parts of Japanese history, the different lords would wage war on each other. A terrible mess.

Let’s see.. if I remember this right.. the lords were samurai, who were served by other samurai. In other words.. the lords were very dangerous killers, and so were the men in their employ. I`read somewhere that women were samurai too, and there might have been women who were quite powerful within this system, but I’m not sure about that.

The lords were in charge of their own separate kingdoms.. they owned lands and were governors of whatever villages were on their lands. The lords were served by the less prominent samurai, who were the Japanese equivalent of European knights. The samurai went into battle against other samurai. This was their job.

Below the samurai… skilled artisans.. people who made things.. sandals, robes, pottery.. the craftsmen who received the greatest honor were the swordsmiths. The ancient art of creating katanas (what are referred to in popular culture as samurai swords) is still practiced today. I watched a documentary on that topic last year.. I think it was an episode of the PBS program Nova.. very fascinating.

The lowest form of artisans were those who worked with dead animals.. the people who rendered animal fat to make soap, and oil for lamps, and tanned hides to make leather goods. Working with dead animals was considered taboo and disgraceful. In Japan today, there are people who work with leather.. they are known especially for making shoes.

These people are called barakumen, and they are discriminated against by the rest of Japanese society, even though there is no genetic difference at all. If you are wandering through Tokyo, and enter a street with lots of shoe shops, you are in a baraku neighborhood.

Ok.. so.. I’ve covered the artisan class..there was also a merchant class.. merchants were needed to sell the stuff the craftspersons created.

Below them… peasants and domestic servants. The domestics worked in houses serving the lords and their samurai. The peasants worked the fields. The samurai were in charge of protecting the peasants. No peasants meant no farming, which meant no food.

But, when a samurai wanted to test out a new sword, one method he might use was find a peasant, and lop off that poor unfortunate’s head .. one way to test a new blade, I suppose. Not very nice.

I’ve not found any info about the Japanese taking slaves. But the peasants were practically slaves.. they worked terribly hard, and their payment was food to eat, and little shacks. If they were lucky.

This feudal system is similar to what was found in Europe. But, the Japanese feudal system lasted until sometime in the 1800’s.. long after the British feudal system had passed into the annals of history.

So.. who were the ronin then? They were samurai who fought for a losing team, so to speak. If their lord and master was killed in battle, the samurai would often feel duty bound to kill themselves. Or they would seek vengeance.. to find a way to somehow kill the rival lord.

Some of you might be wondering about ninjas..Ninjas were sometimes sent to sneak past the samurai standing guard at the palaces or country estates of rival lords, and kill the lords and perhaps other members of their households. The samurai guarding the lords who were killed, tended to kill themselves, out of shame.

What role did ninjas play Japanese society? Samurai fought in open warfare.. ninjas were specially trained assassins.. kind of like special forces groups today.. sneak in, do the dirty deeds, get the hell out.. they were rather ingenious in carrying out their duties. They used all sorts of weapons and poisons.. etc. Since there are no ninjas in the movie “Ronin,” I won’t be getting into more information on ninjas. Except to say there are probably still ninja clans in Japan today, but their numbers are few, and they most likely live in rural areas. And they probably don’t spend a whole lot of their time going around in black suits killing people. But who knows?

Getting back to the ronin. Once their lord was killed, the samurai would have no master.. some of them became ronin.. masterless samurai.. incredibly dangerous people wandering the country. Some ronin were bandits and robbed and killed people. Many became mercenaries.. soldiers for hire.

The movie “Ronin” is set in France, and there are no Japanese people in it… at all..

What??

Very true.. but the main characters are modern ronin. Superbly trained, dangerous men who were once in the employ of various countries and governments.. retired CIA field agents, for example, and their international equivalents.

Robert De Niro (in one of his best roles, and best movies, in my opinion) plays the main guy. An American ex-agent of some sort, who is now teamed up with other men like him.. not only experts on killing, but in covert missions, intelligence gathering, things like that.

Joining De Niro in the cast.. portraying other ronin… other modern day samurai for hire..

Stellan Skarsgard. Who the hell’s he? A Swedish actor, who has shown up in such American films as “Good Will Hunting,” an excellent independent film called “City of Ghosts,” which is a mystery thriller set in Cambodia, and most recently, in “Thor.” No, he did not play Thor, that was Chris Hemsworth. Skarsgard played the scientist guy who was both assistant of and mentor to Natalie Portman’s character, Jane..

Skarsgard was also the star of the hit foreign film called “Insomnia,” which I just watched last night. I think the American remake, starting Robin Williams and Al Pacino, is better.(Robin Williams joined Stellan Skarsgard in “Good Will Hunting,” you might remember) The American version of “Insomnia” was made before Williams and Pacino took on a bunch of terrible roles in awful movies and ruined their careers.. Di Nero has done better than Williams in recent years, and portrayed a cutthroat Wall Street tycoon in the movie “Limitless,” which I watched on this past Wednesday evening.. a decent film.. but anyway..

Skarsgard did to a fair job in the original “Insomnia,” (hope you like reading subtitles – the original picture is in Swedish and Norwegian) but I liked him better in “Ronin.”

He played the technical guy, the computer hacker. His character in Ronin was not Swedish, but Eastern European, formerly employed by the now defunct Soviet Union. Probably ex-KGB, although I don’t think that is specified.

Joining De Niro and Skarsgard in the cast.. Sean Bean.. you haven’t heard of Sean Bean?

British actor..shows up once in awhile, almost always playing a villain. If you’ve seen the “Lord of the Rings” live action films (not the cartoons), you’ve seen Sean Bean. He played Borimir.

Bean also was a bad dude in one of the more forgettable Bond films.. who cares.. He’s also been in lots of other movies.. many of which were not very good, and many TV shows that are well known in Britain, but not in American. Bean is a good actor though.. I wish he were a more prominent actor, and got more roles (better roles, I should say) and more screen time.

Mr. Sean Bean plays a guy similar to Di Nero’s character, in that they are both hired for their skills with weapons. However, Bean’s guy is far less bright. De Niro’s character is not only hired for his proficiency with weapons, but for his mind, and organizational skills as well, whereas Bean’s character is hired to be muscle.. shoot the people who need to be shot during the course of completing the mission.

What is the mission? I shall get to that momentarily.

The forth member of the team, a French actor, not often seen in American films, but very well-liked by film buffs – Jean Reno. He’s most famous for an unusual portrayal of a hit man, in the film “The Professional.” His breakout role was the professional killer, Leon, in that film. This movie also featured Natalie Portman in her break out role. She as only 12 or 13 at the time of filming, and could already act better than most people working in front of the camera in Hollywood today.

Other films you might like in which Jean Reno is the star: “Wasabi” – a mystery action film set in Japan, and “Crimson Rivers,” another mystery/action movie, set in.. hmm.. France? There are two other Crimson Rivers films, but they don’t exactly relate to each other, or the first one, and are not as good as the first one.

I really liked Reno in “Ronin.” He was a very mellow but useful person, and De Niro’s character were pals. I like how each character had a rather distinct personality. Di Nero confident and dangerous, Bean’s character.. falsely confident, competitive, stupid, Skarsgard..cold and calculating, Reno, pleasant, helpful.

In this film, Reno plays the guy who is in charge of getting stuff for the rest of the crew.. illegal stuff. In pretty much all of Europe, firearms ownership is illegal, unless one is a member of law enforcement, or part of a governmental security agency. Europeans do not have the right to bear arms.. and so there is need of people like Reno’s character.. sneaky buggers who know the underground black market, and who can get all sorts of weaponry and munitions, fast, modified cars, and etc. These types of guys can come up with pretty much anything.

Oh yeah, There is one other dude in the crew.. but he is just the driver, a peripheral character, and I don’t know the name of the actor who played him, nor do I care.

There’s one more character in the film who is quite important, and she is portrayed by Natasha McElhone.. a British actress who was in “The Truman Show,” with Jim Carrey, and who showed up in the mystery film “City of Ghosts,” which Stellan Skarsgard was also in. “City of Ghosts” is set in Cambodia. I suggest renting that movie, it’s quite good!

McElhone’s character, in “Ronin,” is Irish, and she does a good job with the accent. She’s a tough, very smart woman, and is the one who has put the crew together to accomplish a the mission. She calls the shots.. she’s in charge.

What is the mission? To recover a case.. a steel case.. we don’t know why she wants it.. we never really find out.. we don’t know what is in it, but the men are hired to retrieve it from a man who is surrounded by other men, who are heavily armed, unfriendly fellas.

Seems like a simple plot, right? Some bad-ass dudes go after other bad-ass dudes to retrieve a case in which is stored we know not what..

But.. things don’t go exactly right for our crew of anti-heroes, our ronin. I won’t tell you how things go bad, that would spoil the fun.

Reasons to see this film.. great acting and script, excellent cast, the combination of mystery/thriller with tons of action.. many views of France, a prodigious use of exotic weaponry..and perhaps the best car chase ever on film. I tend to hate car chases. However, the one in “Ronin” is incredible, really.

Unfortunately, there is a second car chase in the film. An unwelcome distraction, a total waste, superfluous, anti-climactic, and the worst part of the film.

But the rest of it is awesome!!

The movie is rated R for lots of violence – although it is not that gory, compared to many films today. There’s also some bad language, but not all that much. We are not talking about potty mouth “Pulp Fiction,” here.. this movie has lots more class..

Yeah, it’s damn awesome.. rent it today!!

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