Red Lion follows a pattern laid down by many of the best movies in that it attempts to do many things at once and succeeds at all of them. It’s set in pre-modern Japan, so it’s a rousing samurai adventure; it’s a comedy of manners and errors; it’s a sly satire on the nature of power and heroism; and it stars the indispensable Toshiro Mifune in one of his best performances. All of the bases have been touched.
The film deals with, in fictionalized form, a real incident that took place in Japan’s pre-modern history. Shortly before the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Imperial forces were sent into the countryside to foment rebellion against the Shogunate by promising tax cuts, but when the peasantry realized the throne had no intention of following through on their promises, they rebelled. The messengers for the throne had to be branded as traitors to quell the uprising. It wasn’t until decades later that the scapegoats were absolved and honored as national heroes.
Without his commander's red wig, Gonzo's just another footsoldier.
With it, he's a herald to an new age dawning in Japan. Or is he?
Lion deals with one such scapegoat, Gonzo (Mifune), a simple-minded country bumpkin who made good in the army and is itching to go back home to show everyone how far he’s come. He gets the chance to do so when his commanding officer gives him leave to travel in advance of the rest of his company and spread word about the (bogus) tax cuts and other “reforms.” Elated, Gonzo swipes his commander’s red-lion-mane wig — it would be hard to find a more concrete embodiment of the man’s gleeful pompousness — and roars off across the countryside.
What he finds back at home knocks most of the wind out of his sails. The town’s being eaten alive by debt and despondency, and what few figures of authority exist are also hopelessly corrupt. (He has to step in and prevent one man from [rather ineptly] hanging himself in the village square.) Gonzo jubilantly informs everyone that all debts have been abolished, which triggers off a riot of celebration that goes on day and night. In one of the best moments, he seizes a whole sheaf of prostitute’s contracts and tries to tell the girls they’ve all been set free — but is forced to palm off the job of actually reading the names to someone else, since he’s illiterate.
The town's prostitutes are overjoyed to learn that their contracts have been voided.
Gonzo takes great gusto in hammering this particular point home.
The rest of the village is stunned by Gonzo’s appearance — not just the fact that he’s back at all, since they imagined someone as oafish as him would get killed in the war. (He was lucky enough to avoid most combat by being the commander’s horse-groomer.) He becomes, for them, a symbol of the “world renewal” that Gonzo crows about — a true god of the people, bringing rejuvenation and sweeping away the evils of the old world. The irony, of course, is that not only is Gonzo a fake, but he doesn’t even know that what he promises will never be fulfilled. He’s just as big a dupe as the people he’s helping, and the way the movie embodies this is both funny and poignant.
In a movie filled with good things, the very best thing is Mifune himself. He invests Gonzo with such energy and joy that even when he’s wrong you refuse to believe it. Like the peasantry in the village, the audience’s emotions are enlisted completely on his side. There is a scene in the middle of the film where Gonzo runs off to save someone outside the village, and others wonder openly if he has abandoned them. When he returns and learns of this, his elation is crushed: Do people only respect the wig he wears, and not the man under it? Even though he has done great things, they were under false pretenses, and knowing that disgusts him.
The last fourth of the movie turns the movie from comedy and farce to genuine tragedy, as a genuine Imperial detachment closes in on the town and Gonzo’s fakery is exposed. What stands, though, are his good deeds — outside of the mantle he performed them under. When he prepares to sacrifice himself for the village’s sake, his mother reminds him, angrily, that a man of his rare spirit will be needed to rally others in the same way. He has galvanized people in a fashion that can only come from within. The problem, of course, is that Gonzo would rather everyone be able to do that for themselves. It’s hard to be the embodiment of an ideal that only exists as a convenience for other people’s glory.
Red Lion has remained almost totally unseen, even by samurai-movie aficionados, and that’s a shame: it’s one of the best movies Mifune ever starred in. He produced the film, and Kihachi Okamoto — of Sword of Doom, another excellent Mifune film — directed it. The movie bears so little resemblance in tone to Okamoto’s other movies that it’s shocking, which alone says a great deal about the breadth of the man’s talents as a director. He handles everything deftly: the manic crowd scenes (some of the best such material since Kurosawa did the same things in his films), the swordfights, the goofy back-and-forth banter, and especially Mifune himself. Okamoto usually shoots Mifune in closeup so that his red wig fills the frame, sometimes half-obscuring his face. The man has trouble outpacing the legend he inspires.
Only with his wig could Gonzo have come so far, but it's only without it that he can truly be a hero.
Red Lion’s been described as a comedy, but like Sideways or The Producers, it does something far more ambitious than just make us laugh — it uses a comic storyline as a way to sneak in more serious material. Roger Ebert once pointed out that Blake Edwards used to do the same sort of thing in a lot of his movies, with Skin Deep and “10” coming most immediately to mind. Lion starts funny and fast, and by the time it becomes a powerful statement about its material, it’s slipped all that in almost without the audience noticing. It’s rare to see a samurai picture, usually a repository for noble but rarefied sentiments, used in such a sly and subversive and genuinely impassioned way.