Film Review: The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail
In 1945, Akira Kurosawa released The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, based on the kabuki play Kanjincho, which was based on a Noh play called Ataka. Starring Denjiro Okochi, Susumu Fujita, Kenichi Enomoto, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Akitake Kno, Yoshio Kosugi, Iwai Hanshiro X, Demio Yokoo, Yasuo Hisamatsu, and Shoji Kiyokawa, the film had an unknown Japanese box office gross. Considered to be propaganda, the film was banned by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers because of its portrayal of feudal values and was later released following the Treaty of Francisco in 1952.
Following a naval battle in the Pacific Ocean between the Heike and Minamoto families during Feudal Japan, Yoshitsune Minamoto proves victorious and the survivors commit suicide. However, Yoshitsune returns to Kyoto and his brother, Shogun Yoritomo, is uneasy and moves to arrest Yoshitsune who escapes into friendly territory with six loyal samurai. However, their porter discovers who they are and tells them that soldiers are waiting to arrest them on the border.
Though Kurosawa later viewed it as one of his least favorable films due to it being a propaganda film, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail is actually a pretty decent film. While very simplistic, the plot is quite fascinating, showcasing the loyalty of samurais to their master as well as how fractured the Japanese land was during its feudal era as the characters’ main problem is figuring out how to get into the safety of a neighboring, but friendly territory. Interestingly, once Yoshitsune and his samurai are safely across the border, including keeping the façade up for a presentation of sake as an apology, the film ends and does so pretty suddenly closing out on the porter who wakes up from a state of drunkenness. However, this actually makes quite a bit of sense as the characters have actually accomplished the task they set out to do, possibly a reflection of the style of play it’s based on as a play’s plot only contains what is essential for its story.
Though most of the characters in the film are pretty flat, as they’re samurai characterized by their loyalty to Yoshitsune, Benkei is a very interesting character. He’s the one who thinks to turn themselves into Buddhist monks when approaching the border guards and continues keeping the mask on, even when it looks like they’re going to get themselves killed. Yet, there’s also more to his character than just being able to come up with some good plans given enough time as the film shows that he’s able to be quick on his feet. That’s seen when Togashi asks him to prove that they’re Buddhist monks on a specific quest by reading from their charter scroll that would state said quest and Benkei is able to make up a very convincing charter on the spot even though the scroll is blank. The man is even good at thinking up appropriate sounding answers to all of Togashi’s questions about why they don’t look like the average monk.
Yoshitsune is also a good character, seen in how he’s able to convincingly play the part of a simple porter, making it seem like the group of monks have two. What’s more is that when it looks like he’s about to be made by Togashi who suspects that Yoshitsune looks like himself, not only does Benkei do what he can by verbally and physically abusing who he claims is a porter, but Yoshitsune is able to take the beating and verbal lashing to keep the con going. Afterwards really shows who he is as a character, seeing as he tells Benkei that he shouldn’t curse himself because he was only doing what was necessary to protect his master.
The film has some very good acting as well, with the most memorable coming from Enomoto, acting as the porter. He does very well in providing great facial expressions that either add drama or comedic relief for whatever the scene is calling for. In fact, the camera is centered on the man far more times simply for his facial expressions than for his dialogue. Okochi also gives a great performance as Benkei, with him able to bring out the reverent tone of voice that a monk speaks in when stating the aforementioned charter.
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