Around 1860, Japan is in the midst of major social upheaval. After centuries the emperor is reasserting his authority and stripping the Tokugawa shogunate of its power. Into this chaos blunders Gonzo (Toshirô Mifune), a brash but none too bright soldier in the Imperial Restoration Force who is called upon to deliver official news to his home village. Gonzo dons the fiery red mane worn by officers of the Sekiko troop, so he can pose as an officer and swagger around town like a big shot. However, his efforts to tell the villagers about a new tax cut are thrown into disarray. They mistakenly assume Gonzo is here to rid them of the corrupt officials who have swindled them for years and forced wives and daughters into prostitution to pay off their fathers and husbands debts. All the attention goes to Gonzo’s head as he frees the women, including his old girlfriend Tomi (Shima Iwashita), and earns the gratitude of young Sanji (Minori Terada) and his fiancé (Kawai Okada) who tag along as he spreads a new message of freedom among the people.
Some claim this offbeat chanbara film was inspired by French director Henri Verneuil’s lone Hollywood western, Guns for San Sebastian (1968), but the stories aren’t all that similar. Red Lion’s opening narration does not provide enough historical context for non-Japanese viewers to get to grips with the unfolding plot. For the record, in the late 1850s, the arrival of US ships on Japanese shores enabled the emperor to forge relations with the west, something that ran against the wishes of the Tokugawa shogunate. Consequently the emperor, who although revered was hitherto a figurehead without significant power, had the opportunity to seize power from the various clans controlling the country. The people of Japan awoke to find their world had been turned almost literally upside down and a new hope of freedom spread amongst the people in what became known as the Meiji period.
Kihachi Okamoto’s film is an odd beast that starts out as a knockabout farce but ends up surprisingly grim, with a blood-splattered finale that slaughters almost the entire cast. It is a brave stab at something a little different that doesn’t quite come off. While it might sound heretical to say so, in concept the plot is quite similar to Kevin Costner’s much-derided The Postman (1997). In both films a lone, fraudulent hero spreads a white lie creating the illusion of law and order, restoring hope and optimism and giving oppressed peasant folk back their fighting spirit. However, in spite of its comic tone the film’s outlook is pragmatic to the point of fatalism. As surly ronin Hanzo Ichinose (Minori Terada) remarks, the flowers on the imperial crest may change, but the plight of the poor remains the same. The humour is broad but often amusing, yet while the film is lively it is also overlong. Comedy should never outstay its welcome. The narrative rambles and does not get its message across.
Produced by Mifune’s own company, the film provides an atypical role for Japan’s most celebrated actor. Mifune is superbly charismatic, exhibiting his vast range as the strutting, stuttering braggart and buffoon whose intentions may be good, but prove disastrous nonetheless. The beautiful Shima Iwashita - who shared a strong screen collaboration with her director husband Masahiro Shinoda, e.g. Double Suicide (1969) and Under the Cherry Blossoms (1975), and later thrilled audiences as a gun-toting lady gangster in Gokudo Wives (1986) which spawned several sequels - is typically excellent as Gonzo’s not-quite-so-innocent love interest. Yet Red Lion remains a film that is more interesting than likeable, unpersuasive as satire and too gloomy for farce.
Veteran Japanese director who used his experiences during the Second World War to shape the outlook and tone of numerous anti-war films, such as 1959's Dokuritsugu Gurentai, and 1968's Nikudan (aka The Human Bullet). Okamoto also directed gangster pictures such as The Age of Assassins (1967) and samurai epics like Sword of Doom (1966) and Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970), frequently casting the great Japanese actor Toshirô Mifune. Okamoto slowed his work-rate afterwards, but still continued to direct for TV and cinema until his death.