The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail was not the film Akira Kurosawa wanted to make at the time, but when production began in 1945 he was still subject to feudal protocol (i.e. censorship). Its story was embraced by the authorities for it is a feudal one, a jidaigeki1 familiar to all Japanese. It is based upon a Kabuki drama known as Kanjinchō, which is itself a reworking of the Noh play Ataka. Kurosawa basically remains faithful to the theatre regarding plot, though his tale differs dramatically in substance. The one major, and potentially ruinous, alteration is the creation of the porter character, whose silly, ribald antics many Japanese at the time felt were an affront to the traditional tale upon which the film is based.
In the mid-to-late 12th century, during the Heian period, a noble by the name of Togashi Saemon is charged with defending a barrier gate for his retainer, Lord Yoritomo, whose brother is said to be traveling disguised with his retainers as wandering Buddhist monks. This brother is none other than Minamoto no Yoshitsune, one of Japan’s most famous generals. A feud developed between these siblings so Yoshitsune, now defeated and pursued as a fugitive by his brother’s forces, must escape with his retainers to another province. This is where Kurosawa’s film joins the story. Yoshitsune and his retainers led by Benkei, a legendary figure in his own right, are approaching the gate guarded by Togashi.
Word of a traveling band of monks has reached Togashi, so naturally he stops them suspecting it may be Yoshitsune and his men. All of the men have been trained in ritual, and their spectacle is very convincing. Togashi proceeds to ask a number of questions to prove their priesthood. Benkei has been steeped in the tradition as a member of various orders prior to joining Yoshitsune in the Heian Wars. He alone speaks, and he does so authoritatively. Togashi’s final test requires Benkei to recite his order’ Kanjinchō, or subscription list, for the temple he claims to be collecting donations for. He famously takes up a blank scroll and recites, partially from memory and partially conjuration, in typical Buddhist fashion. Togashi’s suspicion ostensibly assuaged he allows them to pass the gate, but as they depart his right-hand believes he recognizes the one of their number as Yoshitsune. Benkei, always quick to action, admonishes the suspect by beating him with his staff. No retainer would ever lay a hand upon his master, and thus the guards are convinced of their authenticity.
The central tenet of the story is a psychological one. Does Togashi know that it is indeed Yoshitsune’s band and therefore allow them to pass out of some admiration for their performance? Or has Benkei truly succeeded in fooling them all? This has been interpreted various ways in both dramas throughout the years, but none of these, as far as I know, have interpreted it quite the same way as Kurosawa does here. In this film it is clear that Togashi knows and, moreover, that Benkei knows that he knows. This may not be so easily diffused from a single viewing. Kurosawa himself, it could be argued, winks and nods at this reading, but he never spells it out in the final product (through montage, composition or otherwise). Instead he leaves it to the cunning of his actors to make these points.
And they are subtle indeed. Like most Noh and Kabuki, this film is an exercise in kinesics: that is, nonverbal, physical communication. The truth must be gleaned from various unspoken cues: a raised eyebrow here, a half-smile there and so on. The entire cast excels here, but it is Denjirô Ôkôchi as Benkei and Susumu Fujita (the titular hero of Sugata Sanshiro) as Togashi who steal the show. In fact, the central interest of the story (in the theatre as well as the cinema) is the subtle, cerebral interplay of the two characters. Togashi is obviously wise beyond his years; his youthful face bears a sober intelligence and his demeanor indicates the trappings of a warrior familiar with conflict and confident in his status. He begins to doze off during Benkei’s famous recital, a subtle suggestion that Benkei’s deception is so effective that he is as boring as a true monk. But this lapse is brief as it becomes evident that Togashi knows more than he is revealing.
Throughout this interplay Kurosawa intercuts the porter character (played by stage actor/comedian Enoken) often. The contrast between he and every other character could not be greater. He reacts to everything: when it appears that they may be undone during the Kanjincho scene his gesticulations nearly give them away, as they will nearly do again when Benkei later strikes Yoshitsune with his staff. He is completely, utterly animated. Kurosawa used the porter character to inject “action” into an otherwise dull story, or at least he felt his film may come out this way with only the single set and small budget available to him. Enoken plays this role admirably, basically fulfilling the well established role of the benshi1 for the screen. He may be viewed as anachronism, but I think it fair instead to view him a different way, and that is the cinematic prototype. He is symbol of the new art of film, with its capacity to animate (manipulate) time and space grafted to a traditional art (that of theatre) that is static and subtle. Kurosawa proves with this film that the new art is not to be diminished, that it too is nuanced and perhaps more sophisticated than most were willing to admit.
The film did not see release in Japan until 1952 upon the departure of U.S. occupation. Oddly enough the Emperor thought the film too Western (probably mostly due to the porter character) and the American censors found it too feudal. This is the essence of the censorship faced by Japanese artists in this period. All were encouraged, practically forced, to make national policy (read: propaganda) films during the war, but to refrain from them during the occupation. Kurosawa was no exception, though the quality of his work in this period is truly exceptional.