Here is a Kurasowa film that was made in 1945 during the final days of WWII, but prevented from general release by American censors until 1952 when the U.S. forces essentially withdrew from Japan ostensibly because the film contained elements of the bushido code.
This is not your run of the mill movie in the eyes of most westerners. It is less than an hour long and filmed against what is clearly a painted set meant to be the mountainous horizon of Japan. In addition, half of the dialogue is poetry that is sung making it more of a narrative now that I think about it. People attribute these cinematic devices to director Kurasowa’s faithfulness to the “noh” style play upon which the story is based. If, like me, you have no idea what that is, noh is a genre of classical Japanese musical dramas that has been performed since the 14th century. Apparently, the plays focus on technical form rather than creativity and what we would call traditional “acting today.”
While researching this review I noticed something; that is, people either loved this film or hated it. Very few opinions were “middle of the road” when discussing the merits of the movie with some going so far as to say “well it left me feeling that the best part of this film was its short 58 minutes.” Something I’ve never heard or read about a Kurasowa film until now.
The film follows the Japanese jidaigeki or “period drama” telling the story of The Gempei War, which has just ended and now, two brothers – allies of that war – have turned into enemies. Yoshitsune, a victorious general in the War, is being hunted by his brother, Yoritomo. Yoshitsune, along with six men, attempt to reach Hidehira Fujiwara, who may offer Yoshitsune safety. To do so, they have to pass through a barrier in the Kaga Province, under the command of its magistrate, Saemon Togashi. The film is how are they going to get through the barrier.
Getting through the checkpoint is not going to be as easy as passing through a tollbooth. With Yoshitsune’s right hand man, Benkei (a formidable historical figure in his own right), leading the way, the six men, disguised as monks, with Yoshitsune disguised as a porter and another real porter providing comedy relief (and in my opinion helping to save their skin in the end), travel to the barrier, but word has already reached the officials that the fugitives are moving incognito as wandering ascetic priests. Naturally, they are stopped at the checkpoint since they fit the description of (and are in fact) the wanted men.
Since all of the fugitives have been trained in ritual, their show is very convincing. Togashi proceeds to ask a number of questions designed to prove their priesthood. As a real priest, Benkei has been steeped in the traditions of the Buddha and he alone speaks, and he does so convincingly. Togashi’s final test requires Benkei to recite his mission for the temple he claims to be collecting donations for. He famously takes up a blank scroll and recites, partially from memory and partially improvisational, in typical Buddhist fashion. Togashi’s suspicions ostensibly assuaged, the band of merry men are allowed to pass, but as they depart, Togashi’s right-hand believes he recognizes the one of their number as Yoshitsune. Benkei thinking on his feet, beats the heck out of his lord Yoshitsune with his staff. In Japan during that time, no retainer would ever lay a hand upon his master, and thus the guards are convinced of their authenticity.
The best part of this movie is not the dialogue in and of its self, but the psychological questions hanging out there. 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? Other versions of the story try to leave their audience hanging by making them try to guess what he knew and when did he know it. In this film, it is clear that Togashi knows and 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 who make these points.
So here are my middle of the road thoughts on The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail the film’s narrative singing gets a little annoying after the first song, but the tension described in the preceding paragraph add significantly to the merits of this movie.