Red Lion (1969) Returns to a more familiar time in Toshiro Mifune’s career

The Final Word:

Toshiro Mifune’s production company produced the film and the Toho company distributed it inside Japan. I bring this up because I understand his studio was in financial trouble at this time and selling Red Lion as familiar, easy going action film with Yojimbo-esque tones and main character would bring the Mifune fans back. Fortunately, the film has artisitic merit beside being a shameless knockoff, but unfortunately, it didn’t have commercial or critical merit to save Mifune’s production company.

In many ways, Red Lion (1969), feels as if it’s a cheap mashup of well established Mifune characters, placed firmly in the Mifune canon. However, he elevates the Gonzo character through his eccentricities and garners your respect through his ferocity. Furthermore, Mifune displays that inherit ability to preform when the camera is focused on him. It’s shot in a way that accentuates his best qualities, letting him take up most of the frame. Allowing him full range of the set to play around. It’s a marvelously fun performance featuring parts of romance, machismo, and genuine empathy, while splashing in stylish battle sequences.

And, let’s face it, the film takes mostly from the Yojimbo and Sanjuro series from an aesthetic point of view. It’s quite an interestingly blocked film and many of the wide shots are packed with extras. It’s a towering story of a single man who believed he could bring renewal, but finds the bleak tip of the sword as he attempts to inspire hope in the people.

A fine film.

The Notes

  • The Samurai movies from the Mifune Production Company always gave him eccentric, Kurosawa-like lead roles that embraced his wild side. In Red Lion, he’s an outspoken, clumsy, too proud of himself soldier
  • The Mifune performance from the start is of fluctuating emotions going from lackadaisical and apathetic to outrageously interested and obsessive in seconds, and it’s definitely a Mifune-centric role. His first scene discussing taxes and not knowing when to bow shows off his rejection and unawareness of official titles and procedures. Mifune plays the bit well.
  • There’s a Yojimbo/Sanjuro-like quality to the set designs placed in a town where the people are set against an oppressive tax man, in Japan’s Edo period, and he storms in with his Red Lion wig and is unafraid of the establishment.
    • Also, the blocking and compositions are excellent.
    • Furthermore, the town’s people are afraid and hidden inside, showing a dusty ghost town, while Mifune parades around outside 
  • Excellent character piece in the first act, as we get to experience Mifune’s Gonzo, who meets all the people from his hometown in Sawanda and relates how bizarre of a character he was before he left. He barely survived death, but came out a stronger, weirder person
    • His reunion with Tomi and introduction to her character are interesting. Although, it’s a rather typical entry with Mifune’s Red Lion instantly claiming her as her wife. The fascinating period make-up makes her appear almost ghastly
  • Hilarious introduction to the antagonist Hanzo, a hitman tasked with taking out Gonzo for shutting down Sawando’s gambling houses and brothels, as he pets a black cat and negotiates his price. Showing a lifeless and procedural-like element to his kills
  • The visual gags – the running in a straight line behind Gonzo and crashing, or the synchronized chanting as they run – all work for comedy. I’m loving the tone as a film not afraid to play it up for jokes, making fun of themselves 
  • The falling honorary notes, as described in the film, give way to the idea of fate and the ending of long oppression, with Gonzo being their liberator 
  • Mifune is so animated in this film and it’s far more smiley of a role than his average. It’s almost a performance that plays off his most familiar Samurai roles in this mood – Rashomon, Throne of Blood, Seven Samurai, etc
    • More on this point, Mifune is having a wonderful time in this role. Quickly becoming a favorite of mine in Mifune’s later, post-Kurosawa career
    • He fully sells this idea of a character that gets The tiniest bit of authority and takes it to the limits. His bulging eyes and twitchy face show someone presenting a fake persona through performance
  • “It’s okay! It’s okay! Nevermind” 
  • In the sequence where all the townspeople make fun of the deputy together suggesting he plows the field as the bull. or sings in public, or is a house dog for an elderly couple, all scenes cut to those ideas to show visually. The film hard commits the visual gags
  • The film might rip off from Yojimbo a tad too much, but I do love the first duel scene between Hanzo and Gonzo, showing him the ability to shoot gun powder without a gun
  • Rare to see any romantic involvement from a Mifune character, but we are afforded that here. He plays so machismo often that any softer portrayal is welcomed and here he’s sensitive, not overpowering Tomi in his delivery and being an aid. An interesting character in the Mifune filmography 
  • The framing of faces is covered with full-frame close-ups that get the contours on Otami’s face and full shots, that capture Mifune’s expressions among the crowds of people 
  • The action sequences are incredible. Quick, no-nonsense fighting with badass choreography leading to cool ending poses from Mifune. The mountain fight with blood splatter on the camera was great stylistically
    • The editing flows so well and chops in so many tiny visual gags that work because the editing effectively times the addition of these jokes. Great flow from the direction to the acting and editing
  • The scene between Gonzo and his mother is important to understanding the underlying themes as she sees right through Gonzo and his games with people’s lives, as he tries to change the world
    • “You fell off the permission tree. That’s why you’re so thick in the head”
  • The DP loves shots where half the frame is blocked by an item and the other is a medium close-up of a person’s frame, often lit interestingly to show character 
  • The newsman is literally everywhere, omnipotent, and never sleeps
  • Mifune’s crying scenes are always intense as he attacks them with ferocity but also builds empathy through how much he cares and the compassion in his voice and expression. The marriage scene with Otami conveyed this well and he rarely cries in his roles
  • For whatever reason, there’s an elongated horse riding scene (obviously foreshadowing a certain character’s death), but it weirdly goes on for 2-4 minutes
  • In one scene, the film goes from humorous to incredibly dark with the heads of Gonzo’s commanders, one being Soga, on pikes. The surprising shot that raises the stakes and adds more death
  • Many of the battle sequences are shot like a western, duel style, face to face, quickdraw being the play. Many wide and full shots capture the town and the danger in one. Full scope.
  • Hanzo’s character arc is fantastic, even if his character’s underutilized on the whole, but him becoming an admirable lover and protector, dying tragically next to his love is a beautiful send-off.
  • His mom slapping him to teach him about leading and what it’s all for was a gloriously written moment

Themes

  • Fighting authority and challenging the Shogunate rule and taxes
    • “It’s okay! It’s okay! Nevermind”
    • A peasants world
  • The line of succession in the army, who they report to, and the chain of command
  • Fate and hope for the oppressed, with signs toward the future 
  • Immaturity and deception to appear greater than he actually is
  • Blindness to the truth
  • An inadequate complex for Gonzo

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