Red Lion (Akage), co-produced by Toho and Mifune Productions, is one of eight films Kihashi Okamoto made with Toshirō Mifune. The action takes place in the 1860s when the feudal system of the Tokugawa Shogunate was on the brink of collapse, and follows Gonzo, a peasant sent back to his native village with the mission to spread the gospel of the Imperial Restoration Army opposed to the ruling Samurai. Back home, Gonzo has to face corruption and a group of conspirators stuck to the old order. The naïve peasant, whose red lion’s mane, a sign of authority, is only borrowed from his commander, eventually discovers that he is being manipulated by the officers.
On horseback, Gonzo is heading to his village, showing a succession of shots, which already reveal Mifune’s exaggerated acting style, a main contribution to the movie’s farcical aspects. The actor’s immense physical presence combined with extravagant facial expressions, revealed in the close-up, recall his performances in Rashōmon and Seven Samurai. In Okamoto’s film, however, excess is the appropriate means for transcending the codes of the jidai-geki (the period film), incorporating humour and theatrical effects into the realism; the red mane not only brings to mind the historical outfit of Imperial officers but references kabuki masks as well.
Arriving at the village at high speed, Gonzo falls from his horse – a moment of physical humour, another moment of farce. The hero is a buffoon who, later on, recognises that his authority emanates only from his disguise, the red mane. His clumsiness, underlined by eloquent gestures, in contrast to his stuttering, reveals Gonzo as the none-too-bright peasant who is a pretender, another reminder of his role as wannabe samurai Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai. Not unlike him, Gonzo, the phony commander, will turn hero.
Minori Terada, who plays the thief from Edo, adds extravagant facial and bodily expressions to his performance, as revealed in this shot taken from a sequence in which he is supposed to cut off two of his fingers (as a punishment). The scene evokes a moment of ritual suicide when the necessary objects (a knife, a stone plate…) are prepared and the young man concentrates on his bloody task. The codes of the Samurai are turned into farce.
Red Lion borrows elements from the chambara (the swordfight film), a genre strongly associated with Mifune. A yojimbo (bodyguard), who is supposed to kill Gonzo, cuts off a flick of hair from his wig during their first encounter. The comical aspect of the duel is heightened by the swiftness of the gestures and by the toying with another intertextual element. Mifune faces the yojimbo, a figure he had successfully played in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, a key film of the genre. Gonzo does not lose his life, but only a few hairs of his mane (and a bit of his pride). Eyes wide open, he recognizes the loss with an expression of horrified astonishment. The heroic image is eroded; violence and action are counterbalanced by humour.