Set in medieval Japan in 1185, and adapted from traditional Japanese Noh/Kabuki theatre, ‘The Men Who Tread On The Tiger’s Tail’ is director Akira Kurosawa’s fourth film. It is the story of two brothers – Lord Yoshitsune and Lord Yoritomo – caught up in feudal warfare.
Yoritomo fears Yoshitsune is plotting against him, and orders his arrest. Yoshitsune must escape the region through the gated border city in disguise with his handful of supporters, and it is here where the bulk of the film is set.
On a side note, it appears the mere addition of sideburns as a disguise appears to be both universal and timeless.
What follows is a game of riddles, trust and deception, between Yoshitsune’s men, and the deeply suspicious border guards.
The film is reasonably entertaining, and another solid entry to Kurosawa’s early stable. It is of note however predominantly only one reason. The major step that this film makes in Kurosawa’s development is the introduction of the medieval Japan setting to his films, an era that he would return to countless times. Until then, he had directed the judo-based ‘Sanshiro Sugata’ films (1943, 1945) and the nonsense piece of propaganda ‘The Most Beautiful’ (1944), both of which had contemporary settings. The Men Who Tread On The Tiger’s Tail is his first set in this period, that would become a stalwart element of his films.
As well as development of Kurosawa’s subject matter, there is some further development of Kurosawa’s cinematic language, (which had been evident in Sanshiro Sugata but had sadly become stunted in The Most Beautiful). This is particularly noticeable in his accentuated use of close ups to raise tension. There is also a particularly nice shot of samurai sword in the near-ground which cuts across the body of a man in the middle-distance, whose live has become in danger.
The later film of his that it bears closest resemblance to is ‘Hidden Fortress’ (1958) (which in turn was the basis of Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)). The feudal setting, captive in disguise, and comedy sidekicks are all present in both of Kurosawa’s efforts. The medieval Japanese warlords and samurais somehow failed to make the cut in Star Wars.
The comedy sidekick here, the porter (Kenichi Enomoto) trying to help the group through the gate, is played with very broad comedy which manifests, and slightly overwhelms, the tone of the film. Whilst he is mildly funny in spots, cutting every few minutes to a man pulling Lee Evans-esque expressions, slightly kills the tension.
On an entirely personal level, due to a sizeable mea culpa on my part, I watched the middle section of the film on mute. This may seem laughable (which in fairness, it is), but I managed to convince myself that the obscurity of the film meant that no sound had survived. But despite this, it is amazing how reasonably the film still held up, and I think that this incident says something about Kurosawa’s visual style of direction (and my stupidity).
At only an hour long, in some respects it is good to see Kurosawa do something simple, stripped-down and short. This means that majority of the film is one single set-piece meeting at the gate. The result of being predominantly in a single location is the feeling of a lack of overall sweeping cinematic narrative. And while great effort had clearly been made toward the excellent costumes and set design, the backdrops are very laughably fabricated. Overall this leaves a feeling of watching a filmed stage play, as opposed to a film itself.
While it was made in 1945, the film was not released until 1952 – well after Kurosawa had established himself internationally – due to a strange, ironic twist. So wary of pleasing the Japanese sensors that he ended up angering the American ones in charge when the film was actually finished, particularly ironic given the oft-levelled accusation that Kurosawa pandered to western audiences.
Sound or no sound, The Men Who Tread On The Tiger’s Tail is a perfectly decent early Kurosawa film. He is clearly having fun with the setting, and the making of this film no doubt encouraged him to return to medieval Japan in the future. But short of making another reasonable film, there was no overwhelming indication, by this stage of his career, of the exceptional director he would become, and it would be a few years yet before he would truly breakthrough.