The first word that comes to mind when the name Akira Kurosawa is mentioned is “titan”. Think of it any which way you want, Kurosawa is a titan of cinema, not just one of the greatest Japanese directors of all time, but almost certainly in the pantheon of the top dozen or so film directors of all time. And it isn’t just his reputation, think of the epic compositions, searing in their intensity, sweeping themes that investigate the very nature of truth and reality, and range from Shakespearean motifs of lust, greed and revenge to the existential humanism of his post-war morality plays, often centered around strong, imposing individuals. Like a few other directors who over the course of their careers become towering institutions of cinema (Kubrick, Bergman to name just two), Kurosawa’s early career makes for intriguing viewing, if only to discover the thematic concerns and visual signatures in their incipient stages that would later, in more fully-realized forms go on to adorn some of his greatest achievements.
The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, a period piece set in feudal Japan is perfect in this regard, considering many of Kurosawa’s later films would also be set in that era, and concern the lives of emperors, vassals and samurai. At a running time of less than an hour (58 minutes, to be precise), it is also easily Kurosawa’s shortest feature. The basic plot concerns a feudal lord, banished from the kingdom by his own brother, and his coterie of most trusted vassals who must cross the kingdom under the disguise as priests, to avoid execution. This involves passing a number of gates guarded by enemy soldiers and hence must be done as stealthily as possible, without recourse to combat.
In his brief review, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum notes that Tiger’s Tail is “Based on Kanjincho, a Kabuki drama that’s said to be as well-known in the East as Robin Hood is in the West”. In the light of this information, some of Kurosawa’s sensibilities immediately come to light, as his main addition to the basic plot is that of a comic character, that of a lowly porter, played by popular comedian Kenichi Enomoto. As Donald Richie, about as authoritative a figure on Japanese Cinema as one is likely to find, notes, the inclusion of this comedian is like “adding Jerry Lewis to Hamlet.” What is, in it’s basic kabuki form, a fairly serious drama celebrating the cleverness and bravery of the samurai is completely turned on it’s head, for it is now seen from the eyes of the porter. It doesn’t take much to see in this the basic seeds of a narrative device Kurosawa would use later, most notably in The Hidden Fortress (told from the point of the view of two petty farmers) and even Ran, where the character of the court jester offers droll commentary on the folly of his masters. More importantly, the porter’s silly antics often undercut the nobility and up-tightness of the samurai, and provide a jarring counterpoint to the drama. Kurosawa had an incredibly sharp sense of humor, most memorably displayed in Yojimbo with the coffin-maker, earlier running the most profitable business in town, ruefully muttering “When the fight becomes this large, nobody bothers with coffins” near the end. But his occasional stabs at broad slapstick have been regretfully less successful. Some of the gags in even his most celebrated Seven Samurai, for instance the one involving Mifune and an unruly horse, aren’t exactly funny, nor particularly necessary and Tiger’s Tail also suffers similarly at times from the porter’s antics stretched a little too far.
On the other hand, Kurosawa’s portrayal of the samurai is remarkably well-rounded even at this early stage, with the two central characters a lot more layered than just one-dimensional stereotypes. The main vassal named Benkei displays an amazing amount of wit, presence of mind and street smarts during the tense moments at the gate which they wish to pass, most formidably when reading the prospectus documenting the purpose of his supposed Buddhist clan from an empty scroll. The movie is far more open-ended than one might give it credit for, because it always seems like the general at the gate (named Togashi) can see through the ruse all the time, but continues to play this game of wits with Benkei. (Indeed, in the kabuki version, Togashi manages to see the empty scroll, but still lets them pass, out of admiration for Benkei). The performance by Susumu Fujita as the opposing general Togashi is a masterclass in understatement.
The final image too has an enduring quality to it. In a strangely hilarious scene just before the end, the generals at the gate offer the troupe some sake as apology, and Benkei digs into it with the wanton indulgence of a drunkard who hasn’t had a drop in fifteen years. Kurosawa here is already showing an inclination to debunk the myth of the samurai, but without entirely denigrating it. And then when the poor porter wakes up after the drunken revelry, all have disappeared, and with just a hangover and a gift of gratitude from the troupe, he stumbles through an awkward dance, ready to again continue his ordinary life after this brief brush with the lords.