The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (1945)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail
Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi
Starring Denjiro Okochi (Benkei), Susumu Fujita (Togashi), Kenichi Enomoto (Porter), Takashi Shimura (Kataoka), Masayuki Mori (Kamei), Hanshiro Iwai (Yoshitsune)
Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa
Cinematography by Takeo Ito

Toho Company, 59 minutes
B&W, 1.37:1 Academy ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Criterion
(Part of the Eclipse First Films of Akira Kurosawa box set)

Surveys of Kurosawa's works in the jidai-geki genre tend to begin in the 1950s with Rashomon and Seven Samurai. But those classic were preceded by an overlooked minor work that was actually the master's first historical drama. Produced during World War II, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail is like a lost treasure among Kurosawa's earliest efforts that hinted at the unconventional new approach he would bring to the samurai-era film.

The movie is an adaptation of Kanjincho, a well-known, fact-based kabuki play about the fugitive lord Yoshitsune being hunted down by his brother Yoritomo. Yoshitsune is crossing the countryside in search of a safe haven accompanied by his small group of retainers, who are disguised as traveling monks. Yoshitsune himself is disguised as their humble porter. When the group arrives at a checkpoint run by Yoritomo's forces, which has received word that the fugitives are posing at monks, Yoshitsune's suspicious group is threatened with arrest and execution. But Yoshitsune's quick-witted head retainer Benkei manages to weave such a convincing cover story that the chief guard Togashi agrees to let them pass.

Unfortunately, before they can go, one of the other guards notes that the monks' porter looks like Yoshitsune. Benkei steps forward and scolds his disguised lord for being such a weak and troublesome servant, then severely beats him. The border guards all agree there's no way this could actually be Yoshitsune and his men, because no vassal would ever dare lay a hand on his lord like that. Once the fugitives are safe, Benkei is consumed with shame over his unthinkable act, but Yoshitsune forgives him for having saved his life.

That's the outline of the traditional story, though Kurosawa added a major new element to his version. He created a second porter, an actual peasant who joins the group of disguised monks at the outset of the story. Referred to only as "the porter," this character was played by a popular comic actor named Kenichi Enomoto, a.k.a. "Enoken." The presence of the porter immediately softens the somber and stoic tone of the kabuki source material and makes it a more human story. Enomoto really chews the scenery and steals the show, running around like a loon, mugging his exaggerated expressions and punctuating the soundtrack with his goofball cartoon-character laughter. Considering George Lucas's famed veneration of Kurosawa, it's utterly feasible to suggest that The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail provided the template for Jar Jar Binks.

Though the movie was probably never intended to have much of a foreign audience, the porter greatly serves to make the story more accessible to non-Japanese viewers. In his ignorance, he comes into the narrative from the same perspective as we who are unfamiliar with the kabuki play and the real-life legends it's based on. Unaware of who the monks are, the porter chit-chats with them about the lord Yoshitsune being on the run and how foolish he was to make an enemy of his brother. His ironic exposition makes the disguised retainers grumble while it helps us piece together what's going on.

Of course, Japanese society at large at that time was not so much concerned with making accommodations for outside cultures. With the war drawing to a close during the movie's production, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail was caught between opposing political forces. Many Japanese felt that Kurosawa's insertion of the porter buffoon into this honorable tale was a mockery of cherished national traditions. At the same time, American occupation censors heavily cracked down on jidai-geki films out of concern that they could foment nationalism and resistance. The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail was officially banned until 1948, and even then the studio chose not to release it until 1952. So in terms of public premiere dates, 1950's Rashomon actually was Kurosawa's first jidai-geki film.

As entertaining and historically significant as it is, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail doesn't feel like a complete movie. Even with Kurosawa augmenting the original story with his comedic additions, the hour-long running time plays more like a setup and one long scene that's missing a third act. The peculiar ending with a celebration of sake and dancing comes across as baffling and anticlimactic, and probably makes more sense to Japanese audiences who know the original Kanjincho story. Apparently Yoshitsune ended up meeting a cruel fate following this colorful escape, and relating that full story could have yielded a more complete movie, but Kurosawa must have felt such an ending would be unnecessary and beside the point.

The Jidai-Geki Knights