Saturday, 16 November 2013

They Who Tread On The Tiger's Tail

Burning Bright

They Who Tread On The Tiger's Tail 
aka The Men Who Tread On The Tiger’s Tail
aka The Men Who Tread On The Tail Of A Tiger
aka Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi
1945 Japan
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Criterion Eclipse Region 1

If you’ve been reading this blog/column/haphazard archive of film reviews for any length of time, you’ll already know that I regard Akira Kurosawa as the ultimate force in film directing. A true artist of the cinema if ever there was one. This makes makes me somewhat trepidatious when reviewing his movies because, whenever I see one, I am often humbled by the sheer artistry on display and feel somewhat less than worthy of passing comment on this great man’s works. But, then again... you know me, even if I look foolish passing judgement, I’ll give it a go. ;-)

This was a first time watch of this particular Kurosawa masterpiece. There’s only one of his movies now that I haven’t yet seen but, don’t worry, it’s on the “to watch” pile so I’m sure I’ll be reviewing it here soon... not counting Those Who Make Tomorrow, of course, which is more or less a documentary and very difficult to see, as far as I can make out. I was bowled over by this one though since, quite apart from this being only his fourth film and showing all the signs of self assured greatness that marked pretty much all his work right from his directorial debut with Sanshiro Sugata, my understanding is that budgetary conditions were not exactly ideal when this was being made.

That being said, everyone was in the same boat in Japan in terms of making movies at this point. There was a little conflict called World War II going on at the time and this was not the film Kurosawa was initially scheduled to be making but, he had to give up on his original project due to the obvious wartime budgetary constraints (the sleeve notes on the Criterion Eclipse edition of this work inform me that the abandoned project eventually mutated into what became Kurosawa’s epic Kagemusha in 1980). So, when faced with these challenging times, Kurosawa wrote this movie, based on an incident from Japan’s past and also on two plays of the events, and he wrote it pretty much over the course of a day, by all accounts. I guess anyone can write fast if they want to.

The film is extremely budget conscious in that the whole of the action pretty much takes place on one set, redressed a couple of times. I find it quite astounding that the set is a forest set and that it still looks quite realistic, although I really shouldn’t be all that surprised at this. After all, think of the final sequences in Jame’s Whale’s 1931 classic Frankenstein, where the villagers are pursuing Karloff’s monster in the coutryside with raised pitchforks and burning torches... it all looks great and you would believe they were all outside, if it wasn’t for the blatantly visible wrinkles on the backdrop of the sky.

This film is about an incident where a lord is being pursued by his brother, who means to kill him and, with the whole countryside out looking for him, he and six of his men disguise themselves as priests and attempt to reason their way through a roadblock. They also have a porter in tow, and it takes about ten to fiteen minutes of the running time before he, himself, realises the importance of the group he finds himself attached to. All very simple and, indeed, it’s Kurosawa’s shortest film, clocking in at around 59 minutes in length. That being said, the fact that it’s a very short film does nothing to dilute its strength and there are scenes of suspense, as the main protagonists try to pass themselves off as priests to the questioning authorities, which are absolutely riveting.

Susuma Fujita, a Kurosawa regular who played the lead protagonist in the director’s first film, Sanshiro Sugata, brings a kind of strange, laid back gravitas to the role of the man responsible for deciding whether to let the group pass the blockade and another regular Kurosawa actor, one of my favourites, Takashi Shimura, also has a small role in this movie. He makes the most of a few lines and facial gestures but, even with so small a role, he still manages to shine and bring the weight of his presence to the screen. The real stand-out actor in this move is Ken'ichi Enomoto, who plays the comical role of the porter just beautifully, going from a character who just can’t shut up over the first ten minutes or so of the movie to some absolutely amazing silent-movie comedy acting later, during the more suspensful parts where the “monks” are trying to lie their way through the barrier. His gestures and facial contortions are quite exaggerated but he uses his reactions to events so naturally that, within the context of the film, they never actually seem to be as over the top as he actually is and, like these kinds of lowly characters often turn out to be, he is the eyes and ears for the audience into the world we are being asked to partake of for the duration of the movie and it is through him that we perceive these events.

Well... through him and the occasional singing on the soundtrack, manifested in male, female and mixed choirs... which comments and explains bits of the story as the film progresses. This is somwehat a throwback to Noh Theatre traditions, is my understanding, and one of the plays used as the inspiration for this movie was done as a Noh version. Of course, being Noh influenced, it has no females in it (in proper Noh I am reliably informed that the female parts would be played by men wearing female masks) but this could just be a coincidence since, at the time Kurosawa was directing this one, all the women and children had been evacuated from the city anyway and so there would have been nobody available to take on a female role, at this point, even if he’d required one.

When the film was finished, it wa a bit of a hot potato, being as it was based on and therefore possibly reinforcing Japanese feudal concepts at a time when the country was losing the war... so it didn’t actually get released over there until the 1950s.  I’m not sure about this but I’m guessing the short running time of the film would have been more about lack of filmstock and other such materials to spare as opposed to any cuts to the work... although that is just a guess and so it may not be the case.

What is the case, though, is the fact that, with only one movie left of his to see, I’ve so far never seen a bad Kurosawa movie and, certainly, They Who Tread On The Tiger’s Tail is no exception here. If you are a fan of Kurosawa you will surely love it but, even if you’re not, Kurosawa’s natural cinematic fluidity is as confident and assured in these early pictures as it was later in his life. This film is in the Criterion Eclipse set called The First FIlms Of Akira Kurosawa, which also features Sanshiro Sugata (reviewed here), The Most Beautiful (reviewed here) and Sanshiro Sugata Part 2 (reviewed here) and, frankly, anybody remotely interested in cinema should be picking this stuff up.

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