Thursday, April 11, 2013

Review - The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail

April 11, 2013

The Men Who Tread On The Tiger’s Tail – Japan, 1945

I first watched Akira Kurosawa’s fourth film, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail a few years ago, and to say I was utterly confused would be an understatement. I could tell that there was a group of important men, perhaps samurai, walking up a mountain with a humorous character. At least, I assumed that he was there for comic relief. I honestly had no way of knowing for sure. At some point, there was a long scene in which these characters appeared in front of someone important, and someone who I interpreted as the leader of the group did a great deal of talking. What he, as well as the other characters, said was a mystery, though. Watching the film a second time was a revelation. Suddenly, the plot was understandable, the fool’s jokes were funny, and the drama was crystal clear. Good subtitles can do this for a fellow.

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail is a relatively short film made in 1945, but not released in Japan until 1952. The film has a few significant firsts for Kurosawa. The film marked the first time that Kurosawa made a film involving samurai, and it is clear from the way Kurosawa portrays them that he holds them in high regard, especially more senior samurai. It was also the first Kurosawa film that was based on a classic source, this one being a tale that was first popularized in Japan’s Noh and Kabuki theaters, and it was the first time Kurosawa ran into trouble with his version of Japanese cinema. The reason for this is that for his adaptation of this popular tale, Kurosawa added an entirely original character, the Porter. The character is played by Kenichi Enomot, who had made a name for himself as a comic actor in the 1930’s. The presence of a comic fool in the film led to charges that Kurosawa was being disrespectful of history, and this led to the seven-year delay between the film’s completion and its theatrical release. I can only assume that audiences in 1952 felt that the wait had been worth it.

The film is about a group of six samurai and Lord Yoshitsune, whom the samurai have sworn to protect. These men’s backstory is rather convoluted, involving war and family betrayal. Because of this, the part of the story involving Lord Yoshisune and his brother, Lord Yoritomo, is told twice, first before the film’s opening credits and second in great detail by the porter. Normally, a film tries to avoid telling the same details twice, but here it is a rather welcome addition. The porter, as all similarly-written characters do, eventually wears out his welcome with the samurai, but like this kind of character in later Kurosawa films, this one too will play an integral part in the success or failure of the samurai’s mission.  

Many of Kurosawa’s film include a senior character whose view of the world and his present situation is more mature than that of the other characters. And in this film, that role can be found in Benkei, Lord Yoshitsune’s wise and experienced bodyguard. It is this character that soothes the tempers of the other samurai, whose solutions to problems almost invariably involve them drawing their swords and fighting their way through enemy blockades. Benkei astutely reminds them that there are many barriers standing in their way and that they would only have the element of surprise once. Therefore, they must fight only as a last resort, and they must somehow outsmart their enemies using their heads.

Benkei is played by Denjiro Okochi, and one of the interesting aspects of his performance in this film is the way he often sounds as if he is performing in a Noh play. This gives his delivery a certain degree of authority, and it is easy to see why those that are looking for Lord Yoshitsune fall under his spell. Kurosawa assists Okochi by using haunting Noh music extensively throughout the film, and a female chorus, much like the chorus of a Greek play would, is employed to fill in crucial details that take place in between scenes. The effect is striking. Okochi would go on to appear in Kurosawa’s excellent post-war film No Regrets for our Youth, and by the time of his death in 1962 at just 64 years of age, he had appeared in over one hundred films.

There comes a point in most samurai films when the swords are drawn and the fighting commences. However, in this film, Kurosawa avoids this. Instead, the drama comes from Benkei trying to avoid physical conflict. After all, everywhere these eight characters go, the deck is stacked against them. This makes each of their movements very suspenseful, and a scene involving Benkei and a man who could easily order their deaths is particularly tense and involving.

There are two other interesting tidbits related to this film. The first is that Kurosawa had originally planned on making an entirely different one. However, the film he envisioned making and the budget his studio offered him didn’t match, so he quickly churned out the script for The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail - in one day, the legend goes. The second involves a visit by British filmmaker Michael Powell. Upon seeing the film, he is said to have responded simply, “It’s wonderful.” Who am I to argue? It is indeed. (on DVD as part of Eclipse’s The First Films of Akira Kurosawa box set)

3 and a half stars

*The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail is in Japanese with English subtitles.
*Many of the historical references used in this review are based on notes by Stephen Prince and the good folks at IMDB. My gratitude goes out to them.  

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