Review:
The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (1945)

(4/5)
Author: Miles Imhoff
Published:
August 23, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers


The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail? More like Enoken's Kanjinchō!

...

I'll wait for the one person laughing at that to settle down. Okay, this one's going to require some explanation for everyone else...

... there was a famous Japanese comedian who went by the stage name "Enoken" (Enomoto, Kenichi) during the early to mid-20th century. A prolific performer, Kenichi Enomoto starred in a myriad of motion pictures. Their titles often began with エノケンの (Enoken no), which translates approximately to Enoken's. I've only been able to track down Enoken's Home Run King for personal viewing, but I wasn't able to understand all that much of what was going on due to the lack of subtitles.

Now, there's this famous kabuki play called Kanjinchō (which I have seen!) based on a Noh play called Ataka (which I haven't seen). An historic fiction, Kanjinchō (which loosely translates to The Prospectus) tells the tale of Yoshitsune Minamoto, a famous general who flees northward with his loyal retainers in the guise of yamabushi (mountain ascetics) to avoid assassination at the hands of his jealous brother, the shogun Yoritomo Minamoto. His bodyguard, Benkei Musashibō, is forced to use all of his wits to outsmart Saemon Togashi, the first of several barrier guards that Yoshitsune and company will inevitably encounter during their perilous trek.

What Akira Kurosawa has done here is create something of an Enoken's Kanjinchō (エノケンの勧進帳), wherein Kenichi Enomoto is sewn sometimes seamlessly and sometimes not so seamlessly into the theatrical narrative. Enomoto's role appears to have been handcrafted by Kurosawa for Enomoto and Enomoto alone; it would be rather akin to casting Rowan Atkinson as Romeo's new bumbling, Mr. Bean-esque sidekick "Paolo" in a noticeably tweaked version of Romeo and Juliet. Now this may sound absolutely ludicrous, but somehow Kurosawa manages to pull it off. I'll grant you that it's not perfect, as Enomoto's presence feels a mite forced at times.

The story does stray from Kanjinchō in several aspects aside from Enomoto's inclusion. The offscreen antagonist, the shogun, is characterised as paranoid instead of jealous, a victim of his advisor's false accusations. The onscreen antagonist, Togashi, is split into two distinct individuals in this film adaptation. His rational, even-tempered side is preserved in Togashi (Susumu Fujita), who looks rather like a Japanese Jimmy Fallon in this role. Togashi's more suspicious, antagonistic side is deferred to the nameless henchman pictured below...

... all right, who is this guy!? Seriously, I'm not joking! I don't know who he is!!! I can't seem to track down a name for the character or the actor. For such an important personality to fall through the cracks is really frustrating... ARGH...!

... ehem, sorry about that; I got a bit carried away. Moving on, the story also strays from the source material in regard to Togashi's motives. Unlike Kanjinchō, we just don't know if this barrier guard has ultimately come to the conclusion that he has, in fact, encountered Yoshitsune et al. This is one of the main disadvantages to porting Kanjinchō to the medium of celluloid, because it requires far less of a suspension of disbelief for a character to turn to the audience and explain his innermost thoughts on stage versus on film. In this case, we don't even have an echoey disembodied voice to give us a clue, so we're left pondering whether or not Togashi really does know more than he lets on and also whether or not Benkei is indeed conflicted by the solemn revelation that Togashi's life may soon be forfeit for his (possible) act of compassion. This is quite sad, because part of the weight of Kanjinchō is knowing that Benkei's devotion so moved Togashi that he elected against pursuing the path of self-preservation. The film implies that Togashi might've just as easily been bamboozled.

Although Kenichi Enomoto's character can feel like an afterthought at times (which he actually is, if you think about it), his presence does make for a useful plot device in that he not only provides helpful information to Yoshitsune's group before they arrive at Togashi's gate but also skews the expected headcount upon arrival at the barrier. This does add a satisfying "Hey, Enoken's helping!" component to the story before it begins to concentrate heavily on Benkei; at which point, the comic relief is summarily relegated to the position of (mostly) silent spectator.

This movie has the dubious distinction of being made during what one might call "Kurosawa's Slump". Who might call it that? Why, I might call it that! The concluding years of World War II are an era that I strongly feel feature Kurosawa's two worst efforts, at least by my reckoning: The Most Beautiful (1944) and Sanshiro Sugata Part II (1945). I'll admit that my subtitles weren't the best for these two movies, but I could still tell that there was something severely lacking. The Most Beautiful (1944) is probably his worst film ever, but that's probably because it's a shameless propaganda piece that lacks heavily in the area of creativity. Sanshiro Sugata Part II (1945), on the other hand, not only fails to capture the energy and flavour of the original, it's just an overall mess. It doesn't help that an offscreen death feels tacked on and that the brother of Ryunosuke Tsukigata's character is played by... Ryunosuke Tsukigata. Although clumsy in execution, it does at least highlight Tsukigata's range. Tiger's Tail similarly struggles with some rough edges, but the fact that it incorporates the exuberant energy of a beloved comedian and borrows heavily from a phenomenally successful kabuki work (the title even references a lyric near the play's conclusion) manages to make it a gem in the midst of a shaky period for the famous director.

It's actually quite telling that Kanjinchō is the subject of a film that was originally intended to be released in 1945. As a pacifist myself, I'm going to attempt to word the following commentary from the perspective of an outsider to the grim business of warfare. Nearing the close of the Pacific War, Japan's fortunes were swiftly slipping through the once mighty nation's fingers. In a way, the Allies' advance might've seemed as hopeless as the overwhelming opposition by the shogun and his barrier guards in Kanjinchō. Was Tiger's Tail partially intended as a means of improving national morale? It's just speculation, but maybe the message of the film was that by adopting the cunning and determination of Benkei, the struggling empire could hold out for at least some semblance of success. The fact that this movie was unceremoniously banned (boo!) by the Allies during the post-war occupation may lend credence to these suspicions.

The question of a review score is a difficult one in this case. Upon viewing this film, I was positively mesmerised in a way that I couldn't quite put my finger on. I knew that there was some very noticeable roughness to the final product, but I also knew there was something very golden underneath. It was only upon further research that I learned that this picture was based off of one of the most famous kabuki plays of all time. When I discovered an English-narrated video recording of Kanjinchō, I couldn't resist giving it a look (to date, it's the only sample of kabuki I've had the pleasure of viewing). The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail is the film that introduced me to its superior source material, but Kurosawa's version is still more than worth a view. Perhaps I've given the final product a bit more in the way of a star count than it actually deserves, but I don't really regret my decision. Recommended? YES!