The time is the Meiji Restoration of one hundred years earlier, when progressive forces rose against the feudalism of the Tokugawa Shogunate by demanding a return to "direct" Imperial rule. Gonzo (Mifune) is a bumpkin driven from his village by the old regime after his girlfriend Tomi was forced into prostitution to pay off tax debts. At the start of our story he's a soldier in the pro-Emperor Sekiho army, whose officers are distinguished by their flaming red "lion" headresses. To win popular support, the Sekiho forces are promising drastic tax cuts and forgiveness of past tax debts. As the army nears Gonzo's village, he begs for the opportunity to enter the town ahead of the army to win the people over. Given a red mane and other imperial regalia, he hopes to redeem his own reputation while liberating Tomi (Shima Iwashita) and avenging himself on his oppressors. Since Gonzo is a stuttering illiterate blowhard, best known at home for once falling out of a persimmon tree and landing on his head, he better hope that clothes do make the man.
It certainly was brave of Mifune to go through the picture wearing what sometimes looks like a Princess Merida Halloween wig.
For a while, they do. Playing on a superstitious wave of belief in a "world reform" that will come with the return of imperial power, Gonzo succeeds (despite having the damndest time sheathing his sword) in taking over the town, freeing Tomi and other debt slaves, and cancelling debts in a revolutionary jubilee. Reactionary forces bide their time, recruiting the inevitable badass loner ronin (Etsushi Takahashi) while the mysterious "Mobile Force One" schemes to retake the village. History seems to be on Gonzo's side, however, but the triumph of imperial forces is one thing, the triumph of the peasants another -- and despite the proclamations of the Sekiho army, their interests don't exactly coincide.
As Gonzo depends on the Sekiho army to back him up, his allies from the town, sent to contact Gonzo's superiors, learn the terrible truth. Internal conflicts in the imperial forces have resulted in the destruction of the Sekiho army, the decapitation of its leaders, and the rescinding of all promises of debt forgiveness. A new, white-maned army marches on Gonzo's village to eliminate the last vestige of the Sekiho enemy. In a moment of dark irony, Mobile Force One emerges to engage the white-manes -- any imperial force is still their enemy -- and ends up only buying Gonzo time. Not that he does much with it.
Sword of Doom proved that Okamoto knows how to give a film a big finish. He proves it again with the epic finale of Red Lion. Gonzo's friends (and his mother) urge him to escape the village while he can, pointing out how he'd given the peasants hope and could do so again. He's more concerned with finding Tomi in the mounting confusion, not realizing that she's gone to one of the restored officials to beg for Gonzo's life. Spurned, she kills the man and goes down in a hail of white-mane gunfire. Learning her fate, Gonzo basically throws his life away demanding to confront the white-mane leader. His fall provokes what looks like an outburst of collective madness. From the start of the picture, the peasant uprising parallel to the imperial restoration has had as its slogan the dancing chant, "Everything's O.K., never mind." While appealing to Gonzo to save himself, villagers had pointed to children performing the dance and chant even as the white-manes occupy the village. Once Gonzo dies, everyone takes it up, becoming a human wave that at least briefly shoves the white-manes out of town. In translation, the chant sounds oddly complacent, but in context, the effect is more like "We won't get fooled again!" or "We don't give a damn anymore!" or maybe just "Fuck it!" However you interpret it, it's a stunning moment, especially because this time Okamoto doesn't opt for all-out bloodshed. A massacre may happen eventually, maybe even moments after the movie ends, but he and producer Mifune leave that to our imaginations, closing instead on an image of pure revolt.
Red Lion has something to say on several levels. First, there's the historical fact that peasants' lot was not much improved by the imperial restoration. Second, there seems to be a warning to the contemporary audience of 1969 about revolutions devouring their own, or proving less than revolutionary for ordinary people. Third, this is a Toshiro Mifune star vehicle, and the actor-producer has given himself a juicy role that lets him run the gamut from slapstick comedy to epic tragedy while indulging in the expected bladed mayhem. Gonzo is a lord of misrule who gets his comeuppance (which isn't inconsistent with comedy) after living the audience's collective fantasy of power but also an undisputed hero with his heart (if not his head) in the right place. Red Lion is, arguably, ultimately a comedy the way The Wild Bunch is in the same year in its ultimate suggestion that you have to laugh and keep going. It's a comedy the way Little Big Man was the following year, the comedy in each case leavened with the slaughter of innocents. Like I said, there was something in the air around the world in those days, and Red Lion represents that spirit nearly as well as any film. It has knockout (if not blinding) color cinematography by Takao Saito and masterful spaghetti-esque widescreen direction, contrasting massive close-ups, crowd shots and epic vistas. Okamoto's pictorial virtues require no historical context to be appreciated by movie fans, and Mifune fans will be satisfied simply by the sight of their idol having a blast of a role. It's a picture with some sucker punches for the unwary, but most people may enjoy the ride anyway.