It’s the end of the Edo era, and the Japanese Shogunate is on the brink of collapse. The Imperial Restoration Force, a roving band of troops who strive to bring down the Shogunate and its oppressive practices, giving full rulership back to the Emperor, wanders the countryside, trying to spread the word of the coming new world order. Gonzo, a seemingly impressionable peasant joins up, and when he discovers the army is approaching his home town, he begs his captain to let him scout ahead, greeting his old friends and preparing them for the winds of change. However no one will believe him if he returns as a peasant, he needs to return with authority, with presence. So he begs the captain again, this time for his red lion mane, worn only by officials of the Restoration Force.
It’s when Gonzo returns home after ten years, expecting to be seen as a hero that his problems begin. While he spouts the coming of a new age, in which taxes will be cut in half, the people of the village are being held as payment for the steep taxes they pay, forcing them into slave labor. So when the people hail him as their savior, begging him to help bring down the local magistrate, he’s forced to hold to his word, living the lie he created, until he’s drawn into things bigger than he’d imagined.
It’s obvious why Toshiro Mifune wanted to produce "Red Lion". His performance as Gonzo, the stuttering peasant turned revolt leader, is pure dynamite and Mifune at his best. An actor who carried an immense physical presence, who filled every movement with passion, Mifune creates the perfect balance of the stoic wandering swordsman and the court jester, who remains endearing to us even in his darkest moments. Of course, I’m sure working again with Kihachi Okamoto was another draw. Okamoto pours the dark humour on thick in "Red Lion". As Gonzo is drawn deeper into the plight of his village, and helps lead them against Komatora, the corrupt official, the humour becomes sparse, and we find ourselves in the depths of an anti-samurai film, venturing into realms of "Sword of Doom" and "Samurai Assassin". But what makes "Red Lion" work so well, is that before it reaches the near melodramatic tone of an oppressive, dark and violent world found in "Sword of Doom" and "Samurai Assassin", here we’re pulled out of that realm as Mifune’s performance, as well as that of Tokue Hanazawa as the sniveling Komatoma, breaks those bleak moments with that of laughter. No matter how tragic the film gets, there remains some element of humour, creating a farce of the samurai world.
And of course, the little action that is present is done incredibly well, something that Okamoto was a master of. His action scenes are so rhythmic, and yet filled with such explosive violence, they become a thing of beauty. So what kind of film is "Red Lion"? Not quiet a farce, not quite a jidaigeki, not filled with blood and violence, and not filled with laughs, it’s really a wonderful sum of many parts. Like the action scenes, it’s more a series of bursts that in the hands of Okamoto flow into one beautiful river of cinema, or, in the swordplay scenes, blood.