“Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi” (The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail), was the third movie Kurosawa Akira directed — in 1945 as Japan was in the final stages of losing the Pacific War. I don’t know that the project was initiated by someone or someones thinking about losing and surviving by craftiness and quick thinking, since surrender was still unthinkable in Japan before the atomic bobs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The story dates from the twelfth century and, as “”Kanjincho,” has long been a popular kabuki drama, and, insofar as Nô dramas can be said to be “popular,” a popular Nô one, too, as “Ataka.”
Slanders against Prince Yoshitsune (Shubo Nishina, sometimes billed as Iwai Hanshiro) have convinced his brother, the new shogun Yoritomo, that Yoshitsune has plotted his overthrow, so Yoshitsune, accompanied by six loyal vassal warriors (samurai) is fleeing north (to the Fujiwara capital of Hiraizumi, if anyone cares). This is explained by titles before anything is shown and again by the monkey-like porter (comedian Enomoto Kenichi), who suddenly realizes that the group he has been telling his customers about is the group he is working for. This comic Everyman is Kurosawa’s addition. The other characters are preoccupied with the code of honor (bushido — the way of the warrior).
The six warriors believe they could overpower the garrison guarding the passage, but the savvy leader, Benkei (Ôkôchi Denjirô, who starred in the two “Sugata Sanshiro” movies and as the dissident professor in “No Regrets for Our Youth”) prefers finesse that will not provoke a military expedition in pursuit of them. Benkei manages to sustain the subterfuge that the warriors are monks raising money to rebuild a temple. The prince is disguised as a second porter, so that the group is six instead of seven, plus two porters.
The lord in charge, Togashi (Fujita Susumu, Human Condition II, High and Low, Yojimbo) is suspicious about these very muscular priests, but Benkei improvises brilliantly, including reading the prospectus for raising funds for the reconstruction from a blank scroll. Is Togashi fooled? Fujita looks like he is aware of who the group is but appreciates Benkei’s poise andloyalty and thourhgtul provision of plausible deniability, including a major act of lese majeste. And/or his implicit belief that the prince is not guilty of treason…
The movie ends with a major drinking party in which the porter dances. In the final scene, he wakes up to find himself alone and amply rewarded for his help (even though at several points his alarm has to have been noticed by Togashi).
I am surprised to learn that any of the movie was shot on location; only the border encampment was shot in a studio. Camera movement and some trekking through the forest keep a quite talky movie from feeling static, and the short film (59 minutes) prefigures later, grander Kurosawa historical movies. The lowly porter, in particular, prefigures the thief impersonating the warlord in “Kagemusha,” and the savvy Benkei prefigures the leader of the “Seven Samurai” (that was played by Shimura Takashi, who is already on hand as one of the six warriors treading on the tiger’s tale, and appeared in many Kurosawa from the first (Sagata Sanshiro) movies right up to “Kagemusha,” starring most transcendentally in “Ikiru”). Smuggling a disguised royal is also central to “The Hidden Fortress” (in which Fujita and Shimura both played generals). And the porter looks and moves somewhat like the scavenger protogonist of “Dodesukaden,” the one Kurosawa film that I actively dislike.
What I had not anticipated is the musical comedy aspects in a drama about loyalty, but there are three songs within the 59 minutes of running time. One, metaphorically celebrating having made a difficult escape, “stepping on a tiger’s tail and escaping from a poisonous snake,” gave the movie its title and derives directly from the kabuki “Kanjincho.”
BTW, the new, American rulers of Japan, banned the movie until 1952 (after the international success of “Rashômon” and the restoration of Japanese sovereignty) for its feudal bushido elements, undercut as they are by the hammy porter being made something of a hero and arguably the protagonist of the movie (though I consider Togashi the hero and protagonist). And Kurosawa had wanted to make a movie about later chaos, the climactic battle that he finally portrayed in “Kagemusha,” but horses were unavailable.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray