The story: A Japanese general and his men disguise themselves as monks in order to pass an enemy border patrol.
Kurosawa’s The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail was based on a medieval episode that also forms the basis for a Noh drama, Ataka, and a more popular Kabuki play, Kanjiko. Aware of its theatrical origins, Kurosawa’s version remains respectful of the tradition by filling his cinematic adaptation with music and sounds in their style.
But it is also radically different.
One of the main changes sees the inclusion of a prominent character, a court-jester-like porter, played by a Larry Semon-like slapstick comedian named Enoken. He is, in my opinion, the most important character in the film for many reasons.
One is that he contributes greatly to the ending of the movie, which no longer seems to praise the feudalist values. Incidentally, this is important to point out because the feudal thesis was largely responsible for the banning of the film in post-war Japan (it remained banned until the early 50’s). Yet, as many aspects of the film show, Kurosawa himself remains skeptical of the feudal values throughout his work, and so, as often happens, this ban was nonesensical.
Another is that I imagine that the film was made at a time when Japan had little money for movie making. As a result, this outdoor adventure drama was largely shot indoors and on a tiny stage. There’s no escaping it. However, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail never seems stagey. Kurosawa’s savvy, innovative editing is excellent and adds remarkable mobility. But Enoken too, with his monkey-like movements and exaggerated facial expressions, adds movement. Kurosawa would return to this Shakespearean jester character in future works.
I was taken aback by the film’s length. Before embarking on this marathon, I was always aware of Kurosawa’s epic length movies. This film wraps up at little less than one hour. Is it his shortest film?