Although Akira Kurosawa is one of the best known and best loved directors in the history of cinema, there are strange gaps in the canon when it comes to writing about his work. For many people, Kurosawa’s filmography begins with Rashomon and ends with Ran. Of course, Kurosawa was directing films from 1943 all the way up to 1993. The pre-Rashomon period has been particularly ignored over the years, only really in recent times are movies like Stray Dog or Drunken Angel getting their deserved attention. If I was a suspicious man I’d draw a correlation between Western critics discovering Kurosawa with his 1950 film, and the value they assigned his earlier work, as if they never heard of his previous films they mustn’t be any good.
Anyway, over the next few weeks I plan to make a series of posts dealing with some of these “ignored” Kurosawa pictures. Of course, “rarely seen” would be more apt, these films are admired by some and available in various formats all over the world, some easier to get a hold of than others. Wartime and post-war Kurosawa has long been an interest of mine, so while he has some unpopular or little watched films from later in his career as well, I’m specifically going to focus on the period prior to 1950 and his discovery by the wider world with Rashomon. Today, I’m taking a look at They Who Step on the Tigers Tail (1945), also known by the clunkier title I’m less fond of, The Men Who Tread on The Tiger’s Tail.
They Who Step on the Tigers Tail was the last film Kurosawa made during the Second World War, though by the time production was completed in September of 1945, the American occupation had already begun. Ironically, the Japanese weren’t happy with the liberties taken with the traditional story of the film, while the nascent American authority banned it for adhering too much to feudalistic values. The film remained unseen by audiences for seven years, until it was released following the Treaty of San Francisco coming into effect in 1952.
The plot of the film would be very familiar to Japanese audiences indeed. It’s roots are in Japanese history, and more specifically the historical kabuki play Kanjincho, one of the most well known kabuki pieces to this day. It deals with the popular historical figure Yoshitsune and his loyal protector Benkei. The story takes place after the real life Battle of Dan-no-ura, a sea battle that took place near Shimonoseki in modern Yamaguchi prefecture. After Yoshitsune’s huge success in this important battle, Yoshitsune’s brother Yoritomo because suspicious of him, and placed a death sentence on his head.
Fleeing north, Yoshitsune and a handful of his loyal vassals, led by Benkei, disguise themselves as monks and prepare to cross an enemy checkpoint on the look out for them. The captain of the checkpoint, Togashi, is suspicious and begins to question the men. Benkei, who really was a warrior monk, manages to bluff on all the questions well enough to pass the checkpoint. During the act, he beats his disguised master who is posing as his subordinate, and later begs and receives forgiveness. In this way the plot of the film and kabuki are identical, but Kurosawa makes one large change with the film. He inserts a new character, a local porter played by Kenichi “Enoken” Enomoto, a popular comedian in Tokyo at the time.
Admittedly, the film was a rush job (Kurosawa said he wrote the script in a couple of days) and done on a tiny budget. It shows its stage roots throughout, mostly because the film seems to have been mostly shot on a single set. However, fans will notice a number of the director’s touches in this, his fourth film. Clearly, even a rushed Kurosawa is better than none at all. First of all, we have a number of his growing troupe present in the film. Takashi Shimura, who appeared in 20 Kurosawa films, appears in this one as well as one of the vassals. Susumu Fujita, who played Sanshiro Sugata and was an early leading man for Kurosawa, plays the checkpoint captain Togashi.
It’s clear from the start that Kurosawa put some thought and effort into the film, no matter any troubles with production. The smooth opening tracking shot through some (rather fake) trees is beautiful, as is the wide vista at the end, when the porter has been left by his new friends. Though mostly shot on a stage, there is a little bit of location work, where the director shoots some Rashomon style glances up through the branches toward the sun and sky. In a few cases the film uses a series of rapid cuts, something Kurosawa did often as a young man but entirely rejected as an older one. Screen wipes are also in use here, which would be a hallmark of his later films.
Kurosawa knows that Benkei and Yoshitsune are the important, historical characters, but like The Hidden Fortress, he shoots it from the position of Enomoto’s lowly porter. As such we only see the back of Benkei’s head in the opening scenes, his face only revealed to us once the porter knows who he is. Likewise we see almost nothing of the disguised Yoshitsune until near the end of the picture. The camera work frequently isolates the porter, staying with him while the others walk past him, only moving on when he does. Like Mifune in Seven Samurai, Tiger’s Tail has a montage where the porter follows the heroes on their travels, impishly bugging them to get back into their group. While the Japanese might not have liked the injection of the porter character, its much needed to add another angle to the well known story.
My favourite scene involving this new addition as when he tells the monks what he’s heard of Yoshitsune’s terrible situation as a bit of gossip. The camera pans around the crest fallen men the gossip is about, one of them seemingly about to cry. Realising his tale hasn’t gone down very well, but thinking it’s because he’s such a great storyteller, the porter leaps into a clowning description of the rumours around Benkei to cheer them up. This scene let’s Enomoto do a lively comedy routine as he would have been known for to audiences of the time, but provides some justification for him doing so in the context of the reality of the picture. The reaction shots, as his story winds down and he starts to realise who he is talking to, are still funny today.
They Who Step On The Tigers Tail probably won’t thrill modern audiences. It’s worth noting that Enomoto’s very broad clowning can rankle at times. The singular focus entirely on the crossing of the checkpoint doesn’t feel like enough to make a full feature film, and indeed the picture is only 59 minutes or so long. But for fans of Akira Kurosawa, the length should compel you to watch this, an easily digestible part of the directors development as an artist. This was a stop gap for Kurosawa, a chance to catch his breath a little before he let out the rush of politically and socially minded films which dominated his next five years, but it’s an interesting and entertaining footnote, if not a major work.