Red Lion (1969)

I decided to make a night of it and finish off the Okamoto box with the only colour film in the set. Don’t know if it was his actual colour debut, but whether or not it was, there was surely no way he could’ve made it in monochrome, not when Mifune was wearing THAT headgear. If the first film in the box found us at the start of the collapse of the Shogunate, this finds us nearer the end with the Meiji restoration and a new golden age of peace and prosperity. At least, that was the message they were trying to sell the peasants; in reality, it would be more a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”. I’ve seen Okamoto described as being cynical about the greatness of the samurai tradition, and the other films in the box bear witness to that, but as far as cynicism goes this film provides a blacker blast against the institutional abuses of power, making it more bracing by making the first half of the film (in which Mifune, playing a not hugely bright peasant soldier in the Imperial army, liberates his village while pretending to be rather more than the ordinary grunt he really is) fairly broadly comedic (much more so than Kill!) before taking a far darker turn, culminating in tragedy. Impressively, there’s no real tonal lurch in this, and the whole thing is rooted in mighty performances, particularly (obviously) from Mifune, whose Gonzo is indeed kind of gonzo but carries us through from mock heroism to the real thing, resulting in a film that proved to be considerably more than the samurai comedy the DVD packaging and back cover blurb led me to expect.

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