A penniless wanderer finds himself mixed up in chaos and conspiracy after deciding to help a lady travelling alone for the purposes of revenge in Tai Kato’s Toei chanbara, Road Warriors (あやめ笠 喧嘩街道, Ayame Kasa: Kenka Kaido). Truth be told, the hero isn’t much of a warrior at all and wisely prefers to avoid a fight if possible but is prepared to put his sword where his mouth is when the occasion calls. Still the conspiracy in this instance is small scale and incredibly petty as a trio of ambitious retainers attempt to frame their one time bodyguard for the murder of a lord.
Before all that, however, Gantaro (Ryuji Shinagawa) is as he’s fond of introducing himself a penniless traveller who makes his ends meet through gambling. In debt to local boss Hidegoro (Ushio Akashi) he agrees to act as an intermediary in a dispute with the greedy Onizo (Eijiro Yanagi) who has usurped some of their territory. Gantaro suggests they settle the matter through gambling but is then challenged to combat by the gang’s bodyguard, Akiyama (Shin Tokudaiji). The young man looks noticeably afraid, sweating at the temples and gripping his sword at an unusual angle, but holds his own in the fight until Onizo tries to cheat by sending in one of his minions to finish him off. Noticing what’s happening, Akiyama proves his nobility by ending the fight and accepting defeat. Onizo appears cheerful and even asks Gantaro to join his gang, but seconds after the young man leaves he sends his guys out after him and evidently has no intention of enforcing a truce with Hidegoro.
Meanwhile, Gantaro runs into a melancholy samurai woman, Miyuki (Kyoko Aoyama), chasing after a thief who has stolen something from her far more precious than money. Discovering the thief has robbed him too, Gantaro springs into action and soon discovers that Miyuki is on a quest for revenge against the man who killed her father but that she’s been betrayed by her three retainers and has managed to ditch them to proceed alone. Unsprisingly, the prime suspect appears to be Akiyama but as stabbing a man in the back and running away don’t seem to fit with the noble character he displayed in the fight, Gantaro has an idea that something’s not quite right.
Of course, he also begins to fall for Miyuki despite the obvious affection held for him by Hidegoro’s daughter Omitsu (Hiromi Hanazono) which he otherwise seems keen to escape. It’s reasonable to assume that loveable rogue Gantaro is the love them and leave them type, though his love for a samurai’s daughter is always going to be an impossibility no matter how much she may come to admire him. Even so, the conspiracy angle along with Onizo’s smug and overbearing duplicity do begin to awaken his sense of justice especially while travelling with an incredibly cynical thief who will sell anything or anyone in search of a quick buck. Even he however eventually comes around to the idea of helping Miyuki get away from her retainers and enact her revenge especially after overhearing the truth while cowering behind some barrels.
It may be an overly familiar chanbara tale if one enlivened by Gantaro’s wisecracking antics, but Kato brings to it his characteristic sense of uncertainty in the potent mists that seem to surround Gantaro and Miyuki as they travel the mountain paths in search their enemy. Then again, there are shades of unexpected darkness not least in the implication that Gantaro was about to rape Miyuki before she fainted and brought him back to his senses. Nevertheless, her retainers may tell her that she has “no choice” but to obey them, but Gantaro seems to feel differently if abruptly giving up his intention of protecting her on learning that she has someone else in her heart. This is indeed a harsh world for women samurai and otherwise, a mother and daughter are saved by Akiyama after being harassed by Onizo when he annexes the local market while both Miyuki and Omitsu are left to finish their father’s unfinished business in the wake of their untimely deaths. Notably, it is indeed they who finally strike the final blow to eliminate the corruption which surrounds them. Penniless wanderer Gantaro doesn’t have it that easy either, gambling his life away and ending up with debts both financial and moral that may have dangerous consequences while often beset by cynicism even if latterly deciding to help those in need for no reward. In any case, like any good wanderer all he can do is smile and wave as he departs for the next adventure on the violent streets of the Edo-era society.