Toshiro Mifune is the finest Japanese actor as far as most of the world is concerned. Staring in several classic films made by Akira Kurosawa including Seven Samurai and Rashomon as well as the Samurai trilogy by Hiroshi Inagaki about famed swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, Mifune an incredibly talented and versatile actor. Animeigo has released another of this talented actor's films in their Samurai Cinema series, 1969's Red Lion. This comic-tragedy is an excellent film that really lets Mifune's talent shine.
Taking place in the late 1860's, it's a turbulent time in Japan. The Shogunate, a feudal system that has been in place for centuries, is falling and imperial forces are on the march to restore to emperor to power. Gonzo (Toshiro Mifune) is a not-too-bright peasant that is recruited by Sagara Sozo (Takahiro Tamura) to be part of the Imperial Restoration Force. (Sozo was a real person, and if you've are familiar with Japanese history you'll know how this movie is going to turn out.) Sozo's army goes from village to village spreading unrest and dissidence by informing the people that when the emperor comes into power he will cut taxes in half and forgive all debts. This is a very persuasive weapon, and whole districts are taken over without any battles being fought.
When they near Gonzo's home town of Sawanda, a place he hasn't been for ten years, the enthusiastic soldier borrow's his commander's large red wig, a symbol of his office, and rides ahead of the advancing army to smooth the way.
Arriving at his childhood home, Gonzo discover's the town being ground under the heel of cruel local officials and his old fiancee sold into prostitution to pay her father's heavy tax burden. The mere sight of his "red lion mane" though is enough to rally the locals and terrify the governor. The son of a poor farmer soon finds himself a local hero, but how long can one man fight off the Shogunate?
This is an excellent film, filled with comedy, action, and drama that is very enjoyable. I'm a little surprised that Criterion didn't snap up the rights to this movie. Toshiro Mifune does an excellent job as the dim and a little bit goofy Gonzo. If you've only seen his dramatic work, it many come as a surprise that Mifune can flourish in a comic role but that's exactly what he does in this. The movements that he uses to portray Gonzo are very amusing. For example, Gonzo has difficulty sheathing his sword but no one finds that unusual for an officer in the Imperial Army. Mifune makes it is easy to come to admire the simple man, someone who truly believes that the new regime will empower the peasants and end their suffering. He may be naive, but he is honest and loyal.
The film isn't all laughs though. It starts out very light and funny but the tone changes as the movie progresses and things get more serious. Before you know it the movie turns into a tragic drama, with all the emotion that one would expect from that genre. The action also picks up in the second half of the film, where there are several well orchestrated battle scenes and a conclusion that is both powerful and memorable.
This disc comes in a standard keepcase, but there are no printed liner notes, something that I've always looked forward to in Animeigo discs.
There are a few problems with the Japanese two channel mono soundtrack, but they aren't major. There was some slight distortion at the beginning of the film where some yells crackle, and the range wasn't as wide as I was hoping for. Aside from that, the disc sounded good. There are optional English subtitles that Animeigo has colored to correspond to the speaker, something that they are known for. I really like this practice and I'm surprised that other companies haven't followed suit.
This film was made even more enjoyable by the very nice anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) image. The colors are very vibrant and strong, and the level of detail is excellent. Some details are lost in dark areas and there are a few spots on the print used for the transfer, but these were minor flaws. Digitally, there aren't any problems, compression artifacts and other defects are absent. A very good looking film.
Also included on this disc are four trailers for other Animeigo Samurai Cinema discs, biographies of the characters in the film, an image gallery and some very informative liner notes.
Toshiro Mifune really shines in this outstanding film about a dim witted
soldier who is able to stir things up in his home town due to a red wig.
Incredibly funny in the first half, the film take a serious tone in the
second yet this change doesn't harm the movie. It actually makes
it more powerful. A well crafted and entertaining film that fans
of the genre should be sure to check out. Highly Recommended.