Red Lion (1969)
Directed by Kihachi Okamoto

Red Lion
Akage
Starring Toshiro Mifune (Gonzo), Shima Iwashita (Tomi), Takahiro Tamura (Sagara), Etsushi Takahashi (Hanzo), Minori Terada (Sanji), Jitsuko Yoshimura (Oyo), Bokuzen Hidari (Gohei), Sachio Sakai (Kesaji), Yunosuke Ito (Kamio)
Screenplay by Shinobu Hashimoto
Cinematography by Takao Saito
Music by Masaru Sato

Toho Company, 115 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: AnimEigo (Out of print)

Kihachi Okamoto is known for creating jidai-geki that are dark and tragic as well as others that are lighthearted and fun. Red Lion covers all of those ranges within one movie, managing to fashion a comedy out of a deplorable true incident from Japanese history.

Toshiro Mifune stars as Gonzo, yet another variation on his stock country bumpkin with a rambunctious temperament and aspirations of greatness. Gonzo is a common footsoldier in 1868, during the turbulent transition from the Tokugawa shogunate to the Meiji Restoration. When the opening narration mentions that these events took place "about 100 years ago, it's jarring to realize that from a historical perspective, the classic jidai-geki films were made not so long after the end of the samurai era. Nearly half that much time has passed between the production of the movie and today.

So anyway, Gonzo is assigned to the Sekiho Troop, which is sent on a goodwill mission across the countryside to win over the townspeople's support for the Emperor and the new regime. Commoners everywhere are celebrating the promise of "World Renewal" through a more benevolent government and greater prosperity for all. They hold delirious Mardi Gras-style festivals with the victory chant of "Eijanaika! Eijanaika!," which loosely translates as "It's okay! It's okay! never mind!" or "Ain't it grand! Who cares?" The Sekiho Troop's job is to get the word out to more remote towns, where people may remain skeptical about the new powers-that-be. A senior officer tells them to inform the people that their taxes will be cut in half and debts will be forgiven, and he grants each soldier an Imperial crest to wear to lend them proper credibility as ambassadors.

As the Sekiho Troop approaches Gonzo's hometown of Sawando, Gonzo gets permission from his commander Sagara to ride ahead alone as an advance herald. Even though Gonzo is a stuttering simpleton untrained as an diplomat, Sagara figures the people of Sawando will be receptive to a local boy. The commander even relents under Gonzo's pleas to borrow his bright red wig worn by high-ranking officers, enabling Gonzo to greatly exaggerate his accomplishments in the ten years since he left home.

Gonzo arrives to find his village ravaged by poverty and despair. Huge debts owed on excessive taxes have driven people into prostitution, slavery and suicide. Gonzo's gleeful message of World Renewal under the Imperial is met with cynicism. The people of Sawando too well know Gonzo, the boy never was right after he fell out of a persimmon tree and landed on his head. Gradually he convinces them that he's not full of bullshit (well, not completely), acting to liberate the indentured prostitutes, including his longtime girlfriend Tomi, and taking back the farmers' rice that's been collected as tax.

Of course, these "happy days are here again" shenanigans don't sit well with the local yakuza boss and corrupt bureaucrats who've been profiting from the town's misery. They sic their ronin bodyguard on Gonzo and frame him to make the townspeople suspect that the red-wigged interloper is a fraud out to trick and rob them. There's lots of great comedy and fun chambara twists here, as the illiterate and simple-minded Gonzo tries so hard to the distinguished leader that he's not. The oppressed and the downtrodden are finally having their day in the sun, sticking it to the scum lords who've viciously exploited them, and it's satisfying to see an ordinary guy like Gonzo seizing the role of the authority figure leading the reform movement.

The suspense hanging over these events is what's going to happen when the rest of the Sekiho Troop finally rolls into town, and Sagara sees that Gonzo has been passing himself off as the commander. We anticipate some sort of climax that will either be humorous or bittersweet when Gonzo is put back in his rightful place. But that resolution never comes, because a much larger deception is brought to light: it turns out that the entire Sekiho Troop is unwittingly a fraud.

The new Tokugawa regime had set out to spread their lies of "World Renewal" paradise as a propaganda tool to quell the last remnants of resistance against them. Once their power structure is securely in place, they have no intention of honoring their promises of cutting taxes and eliminating debts. The brutal closing scene reprises the "Eijanaika! Eijanaika!" chant of celebration in a hauntingly different context.

The Jidai-Geki Knights
Cinema