Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Walking Kurosawa's Road: The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail

The inability to write about the films of Akira Kurosawa to my satisfaction led me to to take a different path: start at the beginning, take each film in sequence, one after the other, and watch the progression of the man from film-maker to Master. I'm hoping I can write more intelligently and more knowledgeably about his work by, step by step, Walking Kurosawa's Road.

The Men Who Tread On the Tiger's Tail (aka 虎の尾を踏む男達 aka "Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi?") (Akira Kurosawa, 1945) Set-bound tale of a feudal lord's attempt to make it back to friendly territory after a successful naval campaign against his enemies. But, to get there, Lord Yashitsune Minamoto (Hanshirô Iwai) must travel through land controlled by one of his enemies, Togashi (Susumu Fujita), who is on the lookout for him and will kill him if he is found. To get through, he poses as a porter, accompanied by six samurai, led by Beiko (Denjirô Ôkôchi), acting as monks on a religious pilgrimage to raise funds for a temple to be built in Kyoto.

It's a tale of suspense, with very little action, save for the subterfuges, disguise, flummery, and appeals to Kataoka's patriotism and faith (which are legitimate but used for false purposes), knowing that any slip-ups will mean death by sword by a very large collection of border guards.  So, in other words, all of the heroes are lying and using the best instincts of their foe against him. Hardly the high-minded ideals one associates with dedication to country or God. In fact, the only of the group that isn't decidedly two-faced is the comic relief, another porter (played by Kenichi Enomoto), who could be Japan's answer to Jerry Lewis in his early career, whose frequent panic attacks could give it all away at any second. You'd want to strangle Enomoto's porter, if he wasn't so entertaining and a tonic against the heavy earnestness of the rest of the movie.

On location
The film was made during the last days of the Pacific War during World War II, which is why the only segment filmed on location is the forest scenes at the beginning. The rest was filmed at Toho Studios and filming was briefly interrupted to listen to Hirohito's surrender speech ending hostilities. Toho and Kurosawa were visited by John Ford during the filming, and one of the first people to see The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail upon completion was British director Michael Powell. However, the film was banned by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (led by General MacArthur) for its depictions of feudalism (in the attempt to make the Japanese less tied to their heritage and more embracing of American culture), but if they'd taken a more careful look at the film, they'd find that it was making a statement against the very cultural fanaticism the SCAP was trying to prevent. Oh, well. The result was that the film was banned until 1952.  
In the studio
One can't help but think that this might have had an influence in his next two films, where the war's ending and the Allied occupation of Japan played very important roles.

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