|Index||10 reviews in total|
Gonzo (Mifune Toshiro), a Robin Hood-like figure, shows up in his home town
after several years' absence wearing a red wig like those worn by leaders of
the imperial army. The son of a farmer, Gonzo has returned in supposed
honor as a leader of the revolutionary imperial army, overthrowing the power
of the Tokugawa shogunate and restoring power to the Emperor. Conflict and
comedy result as Gonzo's military prowess and connection to the imperial
army are called into question. Mifune carries the film in a role similar to
his portrayal of Kikuchiyo in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954).
Those with little knowledge of the Meiji restoration might find some of the comedy difficult to grasp.
I feel that there is an undercurrent of socialist revolution beneath the comedy in this film. The interplay between Gonzo and the local magistrate's samurai bodyguard, Hanzo, is the main vehicle for this agenda. Gonzo displays an unwavering faith that "the world is changing" and that the ruling elite will no longer be allowed to enslave the masses. Hanzo counters him with "the only thing that will change is the flower on the official crest."
Okamoto's other films do not necessarily support this agenda, although Samurai Assassin (1965) and Sword of Doom (1966) both center on disillusioned ronin, like Hanzo, who participate in the fractious revolutionary activities leading up to the Meiji restoration out of interest for their personal advancement rather than idealistic belief in social progress.
I found this a complex film, but one worth watching if you are interested in Japanese history or culture.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The parallels that run from the jidai-geki and chambara to the
spaghetti western and vice versa have been well documented. If Leone's
Almeria sagas are Italy's answer to Yojimbo, then Red Lion (Akage) is
Japan's answer to the slew of politically orientated spaghetti westerns
(usually with the Mexican revolution as the backdrop) that cropped up
in Italy around the same time.
Toshiro Mifune is Gonzo, a peasant-turned-soldier under the command of the Imperial guard. Being a little familiar with 19th century Japanese history will be make things easier but the movie can still be enjoyed and understood without history lessons. We're witnessing the events that eventually led up to the Meiji Restoration that ended the Shogunate's 400 year reign of Japan and restored the Emperor. Gonzo is with the Imperialists and dreams of a "world changing". He receives the red lion mane by his squad captain and is dispatched to the village he was born in, to convert his compatriots to the Imperialist cause by promising all sorts of social privileges to the lower classes. The village's old higher class (the deputy, a rich merchant) all vehemently oppose Gonzo's promised change and cling as hard as they can to their positions of power. In the meantime, a squad of assassins dispatched in the area by the Shogunate with the purpose of killing an Imperialist general gets involved. Add to that a hired-gun ronin who is paid to kill Gonzo on behalf of the deputy and more twists and turns than you can shake a stick at, and you've got a thoroughly entertaining and interesting movie.
Toshiro Mifune starts off as a comedic character only to progress and become a tragic figure and a hero. If Red Lion wasn't so unknown, Gonzo, with his red lion mane, would definitely rank among the genre's icons, next to Sanjuro and Ryunosuke Tsukue. Both his comedic timing (chewing the scenery in ways that might bring Kikuchiyo to mind) and his capacity for drama are amazing. Watching him run the entire gamut of emotions throughout the movie, one feels privileged to see such a great actor at work. Truly one of the best of all time.
Kihachi Okamoto is on the director's chair. Not only a distinguished name in the chambara field, but also one of the most skillfull hands to direct action in 60's Japanese cinema. Although Red Lion is not an out and out bloodbath, there are plenty of swordfights to quench your thirst and they're all staged and executed with the flair of a master. Great photography, sets and costumes, all contribute to a very good-looking movie.
There's a political and social vein running through Red Lion but it isn't until the final 15 minutes that it becomes a fully fledged political allegory. Like Hanzo, the ronin hired to kill Gonzo, says "the only thing that will change is the flower on the official crest". It soons becomes apparent to the peasants that, Emperor or Shogun, their situation is not going to be much different. This is a power struggle among the big boys and they don't have much care or time for the little guy, apart from trying to recruit him to their cause with all sorts of fake promises. Sounds familiar? Yet Gonzo, if only for three days, manages to change the world. At least for the villagers. For three days it's a peasant's world. Okamoto loves irony and Red Lion is no exception. The red-lion mane that Gonzo wears is the symbol of "the world changing" for him and the people. Not just an emblem of authority, but also of hope. In the end, a betrayed Gonzo realizes it means nothing and throws it on the ground disgusted. The people dance and stomp on it as they push the Imperialist guards out of their village. Simple yet evocative.
It's also interesting to point out that the whole revolution of the populi in the end appears to be a marxist concept. But that would be too simple for Okamoto. Echoing Marx's words ("religion is the opium of the masses"), after Gonzo is gunned down by the Imperialist guards, the villagers declare him as "their true god". The irony is so sweet and poignant that it can't be mistaken as unintentional. Perhaps it's Okamoto's way of saying that despite man's attempts to revolt, he always finds himself on the leash of another master, that we only change our cage for a new one. Perhaps not. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it.
In the end, as the villagers push the Imperialist guards out of their village, it seems that there's nothing left than this big, loud, colourful carnival. That's life. And Gonzo is the fool, the jester, the tragic figure, the hero who for three days changed the world. Beautiful stuff.
All that aside, Red Lion is a funny, dramatic, well staged chambara with enough action and great acting by Mifune. Not to be missed by genre enthusiasts.
For non-Japanese audiences, this is not an easy film to understand as
it takes a decent knowledge of their history to understand what's
happening. I will try to sum up the context for when the film begins.
Although Japan was technically ruled by the Emperor, the office had
long become a figurehead. So, while people loved and respected their
emperors, the real running of the country was left to mob bosses, of
sorts. And in the process, they exploited the people and kept the
country in a feudal state. This is referred to as the Tokugawa
Shogunate, as these shogun (bosses, really) ruled like emperors and the
emperor lived in seclusion--in luxury but also like a virtual prisoner.
All this changed in the late 1850s when the US sent a fleet to ships to Japan to forcibly create relations with the west. You see, up until then, the Shogunate had banned virtually all contact with the outside world for two hundred years. Now, against their will, they were essentially forced to welcome the American forces...or else. The Shogunate hated this but the Emperor seized this as an opportunity to finally assert itself and take power. So, against the wishes of the various clans that ran the country, the Emperor negotiated to open up his country as well as asset control. While not an overnight change, through a series of wars and HUGE social upheaval, the country shifted to an Imperial rule--known as the Meiji period.
"Red Lion" is set about circa 1860 and begins with a new Imperial army being created to solidify power. The people are in favor of this--partly because the emperor always was the object of veneration and partly because the Shogunate had often times exploited the people for selfish reasons. And, while there was much fighting between various clans during this time, the Emperor's forces were essentially left untouched, as the Shogunate could not defy their god-like but until recently impotent leader.
In this new army is a loud and rather atypical guy (Toshirô Mifune). He is NOT one of the leaders but seems to be very willing to speak his mind to his superiors--a very non-Japanese sort of way of acting. And, when the army approaches his old home town, this brash guy suggests to the leader that Mifune be allowed to enter the place in the guise as the commander of the Imperial forces (by wearing the red headdress of the leader), as he knows the people and will get their support much quicker than the real guy. Plus, they can use their forces to enter and convert other nearby towns to their cause. While the plan makes some sense, you soon see that Mifune is, to put it bluntly, a bit inept. Can this bozo manage to complete his mission successfully--especially when the local bosses aren't about to just give up the power they've held for so long?! Well, you do have to admire the film for covering this time period in an unusual way. While I've seen plenty of Japanese films set during this struggle, almost all the others were heroic or tragic in style. This one is almost a comedy...blended with some small battle scenes. The hero, if you want to call him that, is brash but stutters and hardly instills confidence--hardly a role you might expect for Mifune, but a good one.
While I did enjoy this film, it has two basic problems. The first I have already mentioned--it's not a great film if you can't follow the plot because you don't know the history. Second, it seemed overlong--as after a while it seemed to lose some of its momentum. But, it's still essentially a good story and well worth seeing. Plus, the ending provides lots of exciting bloody action...if you're into that sort of thing.
By the way, the phrase the peasants chant at the end ""Ee ja nai ka"" was also the title of a movie about this time period and its impact on the poor. Roughly translated, it means "why not?".
Check out the previous comment for more complete information on the
historical aspects of Red Lion - he obviously knows a lot about it, and I
found it very useful to read that right after I finished watching the film.
All I can say for sure about this film, though, is that I loved it. It's enormously entertaining! First off, it's hilarious. One doesn't generally think of Toshiro Mifune as a comic actor (although there are comic elements in his characters in Rashomon and The Seven Samurai), but he's quite funny here. It's not a humor that many Americans could appreciate, though. It's very Japanese. If you're a fan of anime or video games, the humor will be recognizable. Second, it's exciting. I love Okamoto's Sword of Doom, and the action sequences in Red Lion are equal. It's actually a little more action-oriented than that film, which is more suspense-oriented. And, third, it's dramatically effective. Gonzo (Toshiro Mifune) starts off the film as a comic character, but by the end he grows into a hero of great stature. The color cinematography of Red Lion is also very beautiful. 10/10.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In the 1860's Japan was facing great political change. The 300 year
rule of the Shogunate was changing hands for the new Imperial Japan. A
time of revolution and war. This is the setting of Red Lion, a film
which equally balances drama, slapstick humor, romance, and a decent
amount of bloody samurai action.
Mifune Toshiro plays Gonzo, a former peasant and current member of the Imperial Restoration Force, who one day convinces his commanding officer to borrow his red lion wig so he can ride to his hometown village to prepare the residents for the coming of the new Imperialism. Once there he finds things are not as easy as they seemed. In order to collect land taxes owed to the Shounate, the deputy official has began taking wives and children as forms of payment. On top of that, there's an underground still fiercely devoted to the Shogunate rule. Gonzo becomes ensnared in the treachery between multiple groups as well as the Imperial army, who rule may be just as oppressive as the Shogun's.
Mifune is great (as always) as the stuttering, clumsy Gonzo. His role in Red Lion serves as a great demonstration of his range as an actor. In past films, the majority of Mifune's roles were usually similar. He played the nameless way-ward drifter, serious and also a major bad-ass. While he's still as bad as ever, in Red Lion we get to see the more comedic range of his acting... which he pulls of perfectly. His part is the heart and soul of Red Lion. Although, the film does feature great ensemble acting. In particular, Etsushi Takahashi is great as the cryptically evil Hanzo (a role which traditionally would be more suited for Mifune) and Minori Terada is perfect as the innocent but jaded Sanji.
One of the film's strong points is that it's not predictable. I was surprised by some of the twists in the plot. After watching so many samurai films the formula tends to get repetitive. Red Lion is not a film that follows suit; friends become enemies, enemies become friends, and allegiance's are questioned, all in ways that are a surprise to the viewer and which resolve in a way that is quite unexpected but pleasing.
The comedic aspect of the film works quite well (in most cases) and I found myself continually smiling and occasionally laughing. Some viewers may not find Red Lion funny because the humor is distinctly Japanese. But those familiar with Japanese cinema-in particular Toshiro-will find Mifune's performance as Gonzo hysterical.
Red Lion's score, direction, and cinematography are typical of the genre. Beautifully filmed landscapes, intricately detailed sets and costumes, and of course a loud stirring score. Okamot Kihachi's direction is spot on, and coexists perfectly with the performances. There really aren't any major faults with this film, and it's an all around good time.
Although, Red Lion is one of Okamoto Kihachi's masterpieces it has it's share of small faults. Some of the humor seems a bit forced and a few of the dramatic scenes are a bit overdone, though most of it works very well. That being said the last thirty minutes of this film are incredible, and redeem any minor faults of the first hour and a half.
Bottom Line- Mifune and Okamoto team up for an incredibly fun two hours. Red Lion a masterpiece of 60's Japanese cinema and is simultaneously funny, sad, unpredictable, and altogether a damn good time.
I must agree with another review of this movie in that it is one of the best Samurai Films in America. I consider myself now a long time veteran of Samurai movies, and I own more than thirty of this genre. Red Lion has a perfect blend of quick-witted comedy, physical comedy, heart-wrenching drama, and in your face action. I have not seen a samurai movie yet to have such great humor and yet leave room to tear up at the end. This movie is not just for lovers of Samurai films, it is for everyone. There is a lot of violence and I don't recommend it as a family movie but if you love film, DO NOT MISS THIS MOVIE. You will laugh, you will cry, you will be at the edge of your seat, and you will be cheering "It's Alright! It's Alright! Forget it!"
I can't believe that I've never seen this before, because it ranks with
the finest in Japanese cinema. The ensemble cast of crazy, frequently
snaggle-toothed actors is superb. These people steal scenes from Mifune
Toshiro! That takes talent. Mifune is stellar as always, but the sassy
pie-faced hooker, the oily existentialist assassin and the smarmy
anxious deputy are amazing as well. Although the film is mostly played
for comedy, the ending is as moving as anything that cinema has to
offer. A film about very particular people in a claustrophobic little
village suddenly becomes an epic metaphor for sweeping political and
economic change in Japan. Oh, and I'll be singing that song for a
The DVD is also stellar. The subtitles are color coded by character to keep you from getting confused, and you have a choice between full titles and stripped down ones. The liner notes even include a bibliography! Plus the animeigo website has additional liner notes for the film. That's love.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This superb movie was my first political science training experience in my youth. I rank it in my top 10 favorite movies. I first saw it (English subtitle was "Red Lion")in its first showing (it was 35 years ago in L.A. or was it S.F.?)as a guest of the local distributer. I'm still affected by it's message of political betrayal. As a fan of T. Mifune, I was already conditioned by his superman samurai image. I kept expecting and then praying that his main character would toss aside his weaknesses and become the champion of justice and vanquish all evil. But, gasp, he doesn't and he is cut down. I still feel the blades in my own body as he is penetrated and dies. There is a lot in this movie but it was this aspect that grabbed me. What a fantastic gift of life instruction from Japan, to be on guard against betrayals in life. I recommend this film to everyone.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Toshiro Mifune's turn as the stuttering Gonzo in RED LION is so out of character for the actor that his performance here really stands out. The gullible Gonzo (who fell out of a tree as a kid and presumably did some serious damage to his noggin) returns to his village, Sawando, wearing the mane of The Red Lion as a representative of The Imperial Army (which is on its way to facilitate what they refer to as "the world renewal," during which all taxes will be waived and all wrongs set right). Gonzo meets the pickpocket Sanji "The Wallet Collector," Hanzo, a "lai" (quick-draw swordsman), and is reunited with his long-lost love, Otomi (who was forced into prostitution when Gonzo was believed killed and tossed into a river). Says the naive Gonzo: "There's really gonna be a world renewal! It's gonna be a peasant's world!" (The Occupy Movement, anyone...?) "Those with money really DO have money," marvels one young woman sold into prostitution when she sees the loot hoarded by the corrupt town officials. But all is not well. "You're doomed," Gonzo's mother tells him: "No matter how many lives you've got!" The zaibatsu (plutocrats) won't allow the peasants to rise up. (The Occupy Movement, anyone...?) "Theory and real life can sometimes come into conflict," the old village sensei observes at one point. There are some interesting characters throughout RED LION and, as stated, Mifune takes a turn for the funny throughout- but his humorous antics give way late in the movie to some serious drama. RED LION is not to be missed.
This is one of those movies from Japan or China that make me wonder if they
are based on some old story. This story is based on a war for on an
imperial restoration. I would have to guess the date, but remarkably we see
firearms in this movie alongside samurai swords. We see an oafish peasant
(Toshiro Mifune) volunteer to soften up his home village because he hears
the imperial squad leader announce there will be dramatic
The plot is the story of the peasant and his reception in his home village as he promotes the imperial restoration wearing the honorific red headgear of the imperial squad leader. It's in color and it is a splendid movie, but the story is the real star here. It must be one loved very much by Toshiro Mifune who pulls out all the stops for it.
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