Directed by Directed by Kihachi Okamoto
Produced by Toshiro Mifune and Yoshio Nishikawa
Written by Sakae Hirosawa and Kihachi Okamoto
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Shima Iwashita, Etsushi Takahashi, Minori Terada, Nobuko Otowa, Yûko Mochizuki, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kawai Okada, Shigeru Kôyama, Hideyo Amamoto, Tokue Hanazawa, and Shin Kishida
Forces of change are an inevitable part of history. People want change to bring them more happiness, but often it just brings more misery. Ironically enough, it’s just usually the more of the same. As the old saying goes ”the more things change, the more they stay the same”. Akagi is one of the best explorations dealing with this matter, I’ve ever seen. The story of a good-heartened fool who is sent to his former village to masquerade as a high government official of the new imperial government to gain the support of the people there for the new government, but finds himself at the center of a larger political struggle. It’s set in the tumultuous period known as the Meiji Restoration. Akagi is heavy on political overtones. It comes to embody democratic impulses of the Japanese people. This democratic undercurrent exists all the way through. And, it’s used to attack and satirize feudalism. However, the greater message, I found at its core is peoples’ hope and aspirations brought on by a revolution meeting a cruel reality. Or, the unsustainability of revolutions against the interests of seedy politicians.
Akage is a period film on the surface, but unlike other period films it doesn’t get caught up in the minutia of the period it is portraying. Instead, it uses its historical setting as a template for exploring socioeconomics of Japan’s past. Akage starts off funny enough with a lot of idealism and enthusiasm. At the start, Akage has more in common with a slapstick comedy than any political film. This light-hearted approach in the first half of the movie epitomizes the social satire within Akage.
Gonzo is the heart of the film. Calling him simply a fool would be too simplistic because there is more to Gonzo that meets the eye. Gonzo is a character akin to the one that Mifune played in Seven Samurai Kikuchiyo. Both are Samurais who were once farmers; they take up the role of Samurai to escape their preordained role as peasants. Gonzo like Kikuchiyo finds his identity by adopting the role of a Samurai. So, both of their existence undermines the social classes of feudal Japan. A different director made each character, yet, Gonzo and Kikuchiyo come to symbolize the democratic identity that modern Japan has taken up. Although Gonzo and Kikuchiyo are a bit anachronistic, it’s part of their charm. For most of the time, Gonzo puts up an elaborate performance act, yet, there is so much heart in the act, it feels like there is little to no deception. The red mane he wears gives Gonzo almost bit of a supernatural quality. In a way, Gonzo is a character from a different world thrust into a world of the past. Gonzo’s village is kept in the past by the brutal rule of the Samurai there. We are led to believe Imperial rule is a force of change that will be ultimately for good; because Gonzo sees himself as the bringer of a better future. Gonzo’s antics that spur a revolution ends up making him a beacon of hope for the people of the village. Gonzo is vested with so much power and influence, yet his inner goodness is never compromised. Gonzo’s vulnerability as a human being is never in question either.Increasingly, Gonzo comes to the realization that people don’t actually respect him, but it’s just that the red mane he wears that elevates him. All his life, Gonzo wants to be more than a simple farmer’s son. In the end, Gonzo does become something more by trying to rise above a hopeless situation. Gonzo is one of Mifune’s most underappreciated performances.
The supporting cast is great in their own right as well. Sanji, the first man Gonzo saves ends up becoming a vital sidekick for him. The relationship between Gonzo and Sanji truly blossoms into something more profound. Gonzo is illiterate, so he needs Sanji to read for him. Without Sanji, Gonzo would be in a more perilous state. Sanji’s worldly wisdom nicely contrasts with the otherwise naive worldview of Gonzo.
Gonzo’s mother is an important vehicle of wisdom that foreshadows the dark turn the plot takes later on.
Gonzo’s love interest Tomi occupy an important position in the story. She drives two significant conflicts in the story. Tomi is a fairly complex character; she’s a great blend of passionate selfishness and selflessness. Her fate encapsulates the underlying tragedy that is this film.
Gonzo’s fated rival Ichinose Hanzo is the inverse of him which is to say a complete cynic. While Gonzo might be too idealistic for his own good, Hanzo might be too cynical for his own good. Gonzo views himself as an agent of a brighter future, in direct contrast Hanzo is completely aware that he is a relic of a dying past. The two were rather like the yin and yang. They’re both noble Samurai trapped by the duty of their profession. Their final fates dramatically parallel one another, and their fatal flaws are the same too. Funny enough, both of their names even rhyme!
The villains of Akage are an interesting bunch. Rather than a singular force, it’s actually an amalgamation of conflicting parties. More the movie goes on more and more parties join the foray. It’s basically those resisting the forces of change and the forces of change themselves. And, what makes these villains of this picture so mesmerizing is how they manage to resemble one another despite having opposite goals. They’re a mirror of each other in their own self-serving ways. So, actually, the villains are a singular force oddly in their opposition to Gonzo’s revolution. The thematic significance of such a thing is how elites see revolution more as an opportunity for a power grab than a chance to make the life of an average person better.
Akage is a quixotic portrayal of a revolution that encompasses many different things. It’s deeply political to its core, yet the profound and touching story of a simple good man isn’t lost amidst it.