Within Japan a number of directors are widely noted as the masters of the screen arts: Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse, and so on. Internationally there has only ever really been one name: Kurosawa. In a career spanning 57 years Akira Kurosawa directed 30 films, many of which were the first Japanese films to achieve significant distribution outside of their home country. Films such as Rashomon, Yojimbo and the hugely iconic Seven Samurai came to define Japanese cinema for more than one generation of overseas cinéaste.
It’s not too difficult to see why: Kurosawa drew a lot of technique from American cinema, and that had a tendency to make his films more easily digestible by an American audience. At the same time he focused on Japanese history, culture and identity within his films, and that gave his films novelty and a near-unique selling point for foreign audiences in the 1950s and 1960s who responded positively to something striking and fresh.In the context of the Japanese cinema industry Kurosawa occupied a more ambivalent position. While his films were often popular and certainly very highly acclaimed, he gradually fell out of fashion with audiences and the major film studios. By the end of the 1960s no Japanese studio would fund his films. In December 1971 he attempted suicide.
It was the international audience that flocked to his now-legendary films that gave Kurosawa his much-deserved salvation. His 1973 drama Dersu Uzala was funded by the Soviet Union. His lavish 1980 period drama Kagemusha was co-funded by Toho Studios and American producers George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.Kurosawa died in 1998, having arguably made a greater impact on world cinema than any other Japanese director.
Let’s jump back: in 1936 a then-26 year-old Kurosawa entered the Japanese film industry for the first time. He first worked as an assistant director and screenwriter and then graduated to directing his own films seven years later. His debut film Sanshiro Sugata, was a popular hit for a war-time audience, despite requiring the intervention of Yasujiro Ozu to prevent the Japanese government from censoring it. The film was seen as too “American” in style, something not too surprising given that Kurosawa was more than any of his predecessors deeply influenced by American film. Following a 1944 propaganda picture, The Most Beautiful, Kurosawa wrote and directed the much more censor-friendly Sanshiro Sugata Part II, which premiered in May 1945.
There was great demand for new films in Japan during the war, as they were seen as a means of boosting public morale at a time when it was clear that Japan was losing the conflict. Kurosawa’s proposed fourth feature film, however, the feudal epic The Lifted Spear, was cancelled because it was going to be impossible to shoot. There were no horses available, for example, for the film’s battle sequences. With a hole in the release schedule Kurosawa was immediately asked by Toho Studios to write and direct a less ambitious replacement.
The studio’s choice was an adaptation of Kanjincho (The Subscription List), a famous kabuki theatre play itself adapted from an earlier play in the noh tradition. The play, based on a true event from the 12th century, followed a disgraced feudal lord as he crossed a heavily guarded border with his retinue disguised as itinerant monks. Kurosawa was not keen on making the film, but its subject matter of feudal loyalty and bravery in the face of defeat was appealing to Japan’s military authorities.
Kurosawa wrote a screenplay for the film in three days, keeping the narrative relatively close to the original play. The only significant addition he made was to introduce a comic porter, to be played by popular comedian Kenichi Enomoto – an actor on whose films Kurosawa had worked as an assistant director through the late 1930s.
Kurosawa’s adaptation would be titled The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail. Due to the limited number of locations in the original story, Kurosawa was able to stage the film using one forest set and a brief location shoot in the Imperial Forest next to the Toho studio building. Halfway through production, however, Japan surrendered to the Allied forces. After a break of a few days production re-commenced as if nothing had happened.
In many ways it is a surprise that The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail was produced at all. During pre-production Japanese censors disliked Kurosawa’s screenplay, which they saw as failing to sufficiently promote the values that made them propose the story in the first place. Enomoto’s porter was particularly unpopular, with censors disliking the way his character made fun of his aristocratic superiors. Kurosawa personally went to the censors to argue his case, finding them – like much of Tokyo – burning their furniture as firewood to keep warm. The censors described the Tiger’s Tail screenplay as ‘a travesty of the classic theatre’. Kurosawa in turn described the censors as ‘obsessive maniacs who treated us like criminals’. (1)
While the film was in production, it was repeatedly visited by American military envoys. Some took photographs of the film as it was produced, others simply wanted to see a movie be made. At one stage a delegation of senior officers visited the set unannounced, accompanied by noted American filmmaker John Ford. ‘It was he himself who told me this,’ Kurosawa wrote, ‘years later when I met him in London, and I was amazed. Apparently he had asked my name at the time and left a message of greeting for me. “Didn’t you receive it?” he asked. But I had of course not received it, nor did I have any idea that John Ford had ever visited a movie set of mine until that day I met him in England.’ (2)
When the film was completed, the United States army banned its release, citing its content as much too feudal in tone and criticising it for excessively promoting old-fashioned Japanese values. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t: Kurosawa’s fourth feature film was shelved, having been too American for the Japanese censors and too Japanese for the American censors. I cannot think of better proof that one of Kurosawa’s key talents was in blending the cultures and filmmaking techniques of both countries.
The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail was eventually released in Japan in 1952, some seven years after it was produced. A number of factors – the aforementioned seven-year delay, its rushed production and its brevity (59 minutes in total) – have conspired to make The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail an extremely obscure movie. By the time it was released Kurosawa’s 12th film, Rashomon, had become not only a local hit but an international sensation. The USA’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) awarded that film an honorary Academy Award. The Venice Film Festival bestowed upon it the Golden Lion. After such a high profile success, a one-hour kabuki adaptation performed on a single set was hardly going to interest anyone.
It isn’t particularly contentious to state that, all in all, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail is a vastly inferior film to Rashomon. It would be bizarre if it was not – a full seven feature films separate them on Kurosawa’s resume. Why, then, would we want to examine Tiger’s Tail over its superior, more famous and much more influential successors?
Put simply: we should want to because it was first. Kurosawa’s first three films were contemporary dramas. After Tiger’s Tail he wrote and directed an additional seven contemporary dramas, and then the samurai film Rashomon. If we look beyond Rashomon at the rest of Kurosawa’s oeuvre, we see a string of outstanding and iconic period films (a genre known in Japan as jidai-geki, a term that can be equally applied to film, television and theatre) including Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, The Hidden Fortress, Kagamusha and Ran. While the bulk of his career comprised contemporary drama (known as gendai-geki), it is his jidai-geki pictures for which Kurosawa is best known.
This is also an interesting film to consider because of when it was made. From development to post-production, Tiger’s Tail straddled the end of World War II. While Kurosawa worked on the film inside Toho Studios, massive social upheavals were occurring outside. When Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender to the USA on 15 August 1945, it was the first time the monarch had ever spoken on radio. Food shortages plagued Japanese society for some time after the war. Homelessness was a major issue, as was a lack of infrastructure; entire cities had been devastated by Allied attacks. More than five million Japanese soldiers and support personnel returned home over the ensuing months, putting even greater pressure on the government and the American occupiers to make ends meet and keep everybody fed, clothed and sheltered.
What must it have been like for Kurosawa, his cast and his crew, making Tiger’s Tail within weeks of Japan’s surrender? The war lost, Tokyo decimated by fire bombing and Hiroshima and Nagasaki flattened by atomic weapons? While the play that the film is based upon is centuries old, and the story that inspired it older still, there is a certain frission to the piece: a war lost, and an honourable group of samurai resorting to deception and subterfuge in order to survive.
The film can basically be broken up into three scenes. The first introduces Yoshitsune, a famed military general on the run from his mistrusting brother. Together they had vanquished the powerful Heike plan, but in the aftermath Yoshitsune’s older brother Yorimoto grew paranoid that his sibling would attempt to overthrow him as well. As a result Yorimoto called for Yoshitsune’s arrest, and the younger brother was forced to run for his life. He was accompanied by a group of seven samurai led by his right-hand man Benkei, who is renowned as a fearsome and powerful warrior. Together they are disguised as wandering monks, and as the film opens they are approaching a Yorimoto-controlled military checkpoint.
So far, so good – and certainly this is the same premise on which the kabuki play is based. Kurosawa, however, chooses to add a comedic porter. He is accompanying the samurai, unaware of their true identity, and is able to act as both a point-of-view for the audience and also as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on and reacting to the events of the film as they progress. It is a very bold choice. As noted film scholar Donald Richie once remarked, it’s ‘a bit like adding Jerry Lewis to the cast of Hamlet’. (3)
Kenichi Enomoto plays the porter. Enomoto was, at the time, one of Japan’s most popular comedy stars. Generally known by audiences as ‘Enoken’, he made a career out of playing panicky men prone to humorous overreaction. He does not change that formula here, notably in his realisation that the disguised samurai he is describing to his companions actually are the monks with whom he is travelling. Yoshitsune is barely seen: Kurosawa deliberately hides his face from the audience, leaving us to focus instead on the porter and on Yoshitsune’s loyal commander Benkei (Denjiro Okochi).
The film’s second scene, and by far the lengthiest, sees the runaway party work to convince the local magistrate that they are what they appear to be. Knowing that their disguise has been blown they re-dress Yoshitsune in porter’s clothes: the magistrate might be on the lookout for seven monks, but surely he will not suspect six monks and a porter? Benkei has two men to convince. The first is the magistrate, Togashi. Apart from the introduction of the porter, Togashi is probably Kurosawa’s greatest deviation from the original play. In the kabuki version Togashi is very much the villain; a suspicious bureaucrat who must be overcome to proceed. Kurosawa instead gifts the character with an unexpected amount of warmth and intelligence. He appears to genuinely enjoy testing Benkei’s ruse, and what’s more he seems to genuinely like Benkei. The part is played by Susumu Fujita, who had previously starred in Kurosawa’s Sanshuro Sugata. By all accounts Fujita is a much younger version of Togashi than the kabuki tradition would dictate, and as a result he is more prone to deferring to Benkei’s age and wisdom when they converse.
Denjiro Okochi is marvellous as Benkei, and does a wonderful job of showing the audience his fear of being discovering while maintaining to Togashi that he is who he claims to be. Their conversation is, for me, the most enjoyable part of the film. By the end it is clear that Togashi has clued onto the ruse, but his respect for Benkei’s performance is such that he goes along with it.
At one point it does seem as if Benkei and his companions have been rumbled, as the disguised Yoshitsune is recognised. To make the border guards believe that Yoshitsune is simply an incompetent porter and not a feudal lord unused to carrying such heavy loads, Benkei beats him severely for his poor work practices and it’s all the comedy porter can do to leap upon Benkei to stop his attacks.
It is an intriguing contradiction: the runaway samurai only survive because Benkei breaks a code of honour and strikes his master, and the only reason the magistrate believes their story to be accurate is because it is unimaginable that Benkei would ever break a code of honour and strike Yoshitsune. At the same time the comedy porter intervenes because he thinks it dishonourable to strike one’s superior, yet his interference means that he has in turn done exactly that: strike his superior.
It is not difficult to see why the Japanese censors were so incensed by Kurosawa’s treatment of Kanjincho. They had wanted something that espoused the merits of an honourable feudal tradition; instead Kurosawa interrogates those traditions. Characters break the chain of feudal loyalty to save each other’s lives.
Togashi lets Yoshitsune go, despite such an action being directly against his master’s orders. Togashi even sends servants after the escaping samurai, not to capture them but to give them sake.
The final scene sees the resting samurai recovering from their ordeal, drinking sake and preparing to continue their journey. Benkei is inconsolable, and begs his master’s forgiveness for striking him. Yoshitsune does indeed forgive him without hesitation. Benkei sings and dances, in line with the kabuki tradition. The porter’s attempts at the same dance are clumsy at best.
The real-life story that Tiger’s Tail recounts would have been very well known to Japanese audiences, and they would have known how the escape actually ended: the actual Yoshitsune was ultimately betrayed and, rather than face imprisonment and disgrace, committed suicide. This foreknowledge gives this third and final scene a melancholy air. The immediate task has been completed, but the ongoing escape will be a futile gesture. There is, for me at any rate, an overwhelming sense of defeat in the temporary glow of victory.
As part of his drunken performance Benkei solemnly sings: ‘Even though the waterfall roars, even though the sun shines, we continue on without rest.’ There is a Japanese phrase, ‘shikata ga nai’, which essentially means ‘nothing can be done about it’. It was a common phrase in the months following the end of World War II, a sort of weary resignation that one could either complain and fight against an awful situation or to simply bear down and make the best out of a sorry situation. Shikata ga nai; nothing can be done. We continue on without rest.
Continue they do, and so – in the ashes of Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki – did Japan.
- Audie Bock, “Kurosawa on his innovative cinema”, in Bert Cardullo, ed. Akira Kurosawa: Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2008.
- Kurosawa Akira, Something Like an Autobiography, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1982. Translated by Audie E. Bock.
- Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1970.