Review: The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail
4 out of 5 stars
Before directing The Hidden Fortress, which would go on to inspire Star Wars, Akira Kurosawa directed a different tale of royalty escaping through enemy lines in The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail.
The story is set against a historical background in the late Heian period of Japan. Yoshitsune has had a falling out with his brother, Yoritomo, the shogun (generalissimo). Fearing for his life, Yoshitsune and his loyal retainers, led by Benkei, and their unsuspecting porter are attempting to flee to the north disguised as priests. They come to an obstacle when they find their path is barricaded by Yoritomo's forces, led by Togashi (Susumu Fujita, Sugata Sanshiro). Being hopelessly outnumbered, the men must rely on their wits, rather than violence, to pass the barrier.
Even though there is no violence in this samurai film, the movie is filled with suspense, thanks largely to the strength of the script and Kurosawa's direction. The movie is an enlightening portrayal of extreme Japanese values. These values can be seen in the contrast between the samurai and the porter. Yoshitsune's retainers are stoic and intensely loyal to their lord. The porter is foolish and speaks with a loose tongue. In their behavior, the samurai and the retainer are keeping in line with the expectations of their respective castes. While the samurai are the highest class in the feudal system, their status comes with expectations of strict piety. Even though the porter is limited in his social mobility, he is not held to the same standards as the samurai.
Filmed in 1945, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail was banned by the Occupying Forces for its portrayal of feudal values. The movie was finally released in 1952, after sovereignty was returned to Japan.
There are many parallels with Kurosawa's later epic, The Hidden Fortress. Both are about samurai sneaking through enemy lines. Both use porters as comic relief. The princess in The Hidden Fortress and Yoshitsune in The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail both have to wear a disguise to hide their high breeding.
At 59 minutes, this is a short movie. It feels like one act of a longer film. Kenichi Enomoto, a famous comedian at the time, provides welcome comic relief as the porter. But his performance is a bit over-the-top, and seems a bit more suited for another film. The way the samurai interact with him, however, provides a humanizing effect on the characters.
The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail is an early gem in Kurosawa's catalog.