I'm unsure of what just happened here. It seemed like I was watching the first episode of a TV show I was kind of enjoying, and then it ended and I realized it was just an unproduced pilot. Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail clocks in at just barely under an hour and seems to be building through what are basically three extended scenes to a climax that never quite arrives. This is the first of Kurosawa's films that we've watched so far that seems fully in line with his later work, with characters trying to adhere to strong values despite being placed in roles that complicate their ability to do so.
The plot is essentially just a setup for one scene: six warriors follow their leader on route to a northern province in order to escape his brother, the Shogun, who has decided to have him killed. They are dressed as wandering monks, with their leader disguised as one of their two porters, and when they reach one of the Shogun's checkpoints set along the border, they must convince the authorities there that they are in fact monks and not the warriors being searched for. This results in a scene where the leader's bodyguard is forced to improvise over and over, showing gradually increasing fervor for the group's fictional cause (wandering the area soliciting funds to rebuild a temple).
These scenes are mildly clever but expected, and since we haven't had much of an introduction to any individual characters, the suspense lies mostly in the mechanics of the conversation. The leader of the checkpoint asks the bodyguard to recite their prospectus for the fundraising effort—will he be able to think of something on the spot? The bodyguard is asked to explain their militaristic attire—how will he explain it and maintain their cover story? This back and forth goes on for a little bit, but our investment is situational rather than emotional. We're not so much rooting for the group to succeed and continue on undetected or for them to be exposed and fight their way out of the checkpoint—both of which seem equal possibilities—but rather we're just interested in how everything plays out. This makes for a compelling scene, but it feels like an exercise rather than a part of a larger story.
Where the interest shifts for me is toward the end of this central sequence, when one of the military officers at the checkpoint has realized that the Shogun's brother is disguised as one of the group's porters. As a final demonstration of his dedication to securing his master safe passage at whatever cost, the bodyguard shoves him down and begins beating him and berating him for being weak and holding them back. This is sufficient to convince the leader of the checkpoint that they are not the escaped warriors in disguise, as no subordinate would ever beat and humiliate their master in such a way. This sets up a scene immediately following where the bodyguard repents and apologizes profusely at his leader's feet, condemning his own behavior even as it has secured their survival. This need to violate and bend one's core values in order to reach the group's goal could have made for some interesting challenges as the story progressed, with fertile ground to explore the characters' sense of responsibility and what ends justify what means in such a strict warrior code.
Instead, the movie ends abruptly with what appears to be a wine drinking contest, making this my favorite Kurosawa film we've discussed thus far. This is followed by the group's actual porter—the only one who isn't one of the disguised warriors, and also the best character in the movie—waking up alone in a field with what seems like an appropriate mix of confusion and dancing. Has the group simply moved on? Perhaps this was another test, but this time the bodyguard's commitment to maintaining their story resulted in him drinking too much sake and being unable to defend the group, and they were all carted off silently and drunk in the night? These were the thoughts running through my head as I double checked my DVD player to ensure that I had in fact witnessed the end of the film. I'm not sure they're entirely what Kurosawa was intending.
There are a few factors that give the movie the feeling of a fable, which is how it is ultimately effective. The simple plot and clearly defined, uncomplicated characters work well in what is essentially a short story that could be told with faceless, nameless figures. This is perhaps the opposite of The Seven Samurai, in which Kurosawa goes to great lengths to establish each character as a unique and crucial component in the overall story. There's also the group's actual porter, a small, energetic, and perpetually amused man who quickly figures out who they really are. He has the exaggerated, theatrical reactions of a silent comedy star and the rubber-faced expressions of some kind of slightly-less-unhinged Jim Carrey, and I hope he shows up again in a future movie. Kurosawa is constantly looking to him for reactions to frame—and sometimes relieve—the suspense, and this is appropriate as he is seeing the members of the group from the outside, much like the audience. In the absence of any significant character development for the warriors aside from some sweeping statements about perseverance, we tend to relate more to the porter's point of view.
This effect is heightened by the ending, which gives the group of warriors a ghostly quality. They were here and now they're gone; the porter has glimpsed them briefly and so have we. That this final shot is set against an incredible view of the sky and the porter is seen mostly in silhouette as he dances out of the frame just adds to the surreal quality. I'll be damned if I completely understand what happened, but it seems Kurosawa has finally arrived.
Congratulations Kyle, it took us four whole movies to get to something you seem to have genuinely liked, and that long for me to finally reach near peak apathy after a sad conversation with my inner stretchy face. I’d like to hear you elaborate further on why the porter amused you so, because his overacting was less in the Japanese Noh tradition and more in the Carrey vein you mentioned. This is to say the ass talking antics of Carrey had no business being anywhere near this film, let alone in the gelatinous mess of a tag along this crew is stuck with.
Keeping it at the level of a fable is fine as the limited setting suits the mostly nameless characters but the constant reaction shots from the porter kept me from getting too invested in the tension. This is a shame, because despite the nearly formless nature of the film the conflict at the military base was nothing less than stunning. The back and forth between the shogun, his top aide, and the fake head priest was spectacular and highlighted Kurosawa’s skepticism when it came to religion perfectly.
He did not believe in any sort of afterlife or spirits so watching the fake ascetic come up with a whole religious routine on the spot was great for plotting and a nice representation of that worldview. I was laughing more at the dark cynicism at play, at how the shogun could have been so easily fooled by a bunch of poppycock when it’s delivered with earnest conviction. But it seemed every single goddamned sentence involved a reaction shot from the porter. It was never varied as his face just kept stretching from one end of the screen to the other. His eyes growing wide, narrow, then wide just as quickly. How much zaniness are we to take?
In fact, his entire role was nothing but exposition filler from the very beginning. We have yet another text crawl explaining what the movie is going to be about, and then the porter meets the belabored group and says the exact same intro to them not once, but twice. He hardly proves instrumental in their ruse as well, further pointing toward how much padding this film had to have to pass as something feature-length, and exists primarily for more mugging.
So, as far as Kurosawa having “arrived” as you mentioned, he just made the best possible film he could with the resources at hand but still fell short. I’ll maintain that the melodrama of Sanshiro Sugata Part 1 was a mostly formed Kurosawa film with the shadowy fight at the beginning, the montage on the steps, some snappy editing, and mountaintop showdown. Those skills are at play during the ruse at the center of the film, and I will admit the final shot as the warriors fade away is very well done, but none of the great technical craft is there. Thematically, yes, this is the first time we get a true sense of the kind of cynicism that Kurosawa trafficked in. This isn’t the same kind of grim reality Kurosawa went with for Sanshiro Sugata Part 2, but the sense that the future will not be changed whether these men live or die by the shogun’s hand.
Strangely enough, it’s that kind of cynicism that kept the film from being released. Everything I liked about it, the joking way it treated religion to the ghost-like nature of the protagonists, kept it from being released by the post-wartime committee because of how much it disrespected traditional Japanese culture. I admit, I was completely lost on the wombscape when the fake priest was rambling on, but it appears my own admiration was not shared by the cinematic powers that be at the time. At the core, and this is probably what they did not want to be reminded of, it is the opposite of Sanshiro Sugata Part 2 which showed how some cultures will be consumed alive. Instead it showed how the past will be appropriated by fools in the future for some kind of ruse or entertainment.
It falls back to the burn out or fade away debate, and they said the former is better at the time.
Final shot aside, it’s pretty clear Kurosawa was working with very limited means by this point. Limited access to electricity and money meant he had to shoot the film with what he was given, one set and whatever he could carry to it. I can’t say he was successful in evoking different regions using the same landscape aside from the final shot we both like so much. After some travel, it’s clear he just repositioned some bushes and turned the camera around. When they get to the camp, there’s some sticks poking out of the ground but we can still see the outlines of the same trees and clouds in the background. There’s just not much to get excited about.
I do want to touch on something both of us have repeated multiple times over these four movies, and that’s how much they feel like modern television shows. This film was the most obvious example I can think of to date. The extended prologue exists as a “Previously on” and the way the singers in the background feel it necessary to warble on about every action they are taking feels very much like a multi-camera sitcom. Even the situation feels like the template for a bottle episode, born of a low budget and need to keep as many characters as possible to a single location with a plausible enough reason to do so. I may not be happy with the results but there are some diamonds which poke through, a statement I haven’t been able to apply to the last two films. So I suppose I’m meagerly satisfied.
I think the thing for me is the surprise at the few very successful elements of the film—whereas the others have offered glimpses of Kurosawa's strengths sewn into mostly unsatisfying but complete films, this feels more like a series of exercises that never made it to a completed stage. However, perhaps because of how incomplete the movie is on almost every level—structurally as well as technically, like you mentioned—the success of those two scenes we both like stands out more. It hints at a movie that could perhaps have achieved greatness were the resources and time there to fully develop it.
Overall, these first four films have been interesting as a selective portfolio of good and bad work. They exhibit Kurosawa's talents in snapshot form, but he just hasn't developed a connective tissue for them that works yet—that may be part of why they feel like TV episodes. If I hadn't seen some of his more successful efforts, I don't know that I'd be interested in these first films, but knowing what's in store for us down the line, the small but distinct glimpses of success here are interesting.
As for the porter, I gravitated to him only because he was the only character in the movie that seemed to have any energy, albeit the simple and somewhat lazy zaniness you mention. In a movie that moves for about 20 - 25 of its 30 minutes without anything interesting happening—or really anything happening at all—the porter for me was like a consolation prize. His presence in the middle sequence is distracting, you are correct. Thankfully Kurosawa managed to ramp up his game when it comes to more outrightly humorous characters in later films. Held against the comedic elements of something like Yojimbo, the moments of overblown relief here don't seem to come from the same director, but as goofy moments punctuating an unbearably dull first act, I was willing to give it a pass.
It's certainly not a movie I will feel the need to watch again, but the middle sequence at the border checkpoint and the haunting ending were successful on a level that got me excited all over again about a project tackling Kurosawa so comprehensively. This was much needed, as that level of excitement was thoroughly drained by the first three films, and I don't have the strength of will to carry on like the women in The Most Beautiful.
If there is one thing we shared about The Men Who Tread On Tiger’s Tail, is that it does hint at greater promise than any of the films we watched previously. As much as I loved the first part of the Sanshiro saga, I was a lot more detached from the world than I was during the most involving section of Tiger. A less analytic analysis came from my former Kubrick partner, and current cuddly wuddly lovey lady, Amanda (that one’s for you, Danny). There wasn’t a single thing on the screen that caught her attention during those first few films, but when the fake priest was reading from that scroll she finally asked, “What’s happening? Because it’s awesome.”
But it all comes at a price, a cost we both paid differently during the first half hour. What you saw as a welcome comedic interlude to a too boring introduction, I saw as a desperate bid to keep attention when the portent of what’s to come was more than enough. I would have loved to see this film in a secure post-war environment with a Kurosawa who had the resources of The Hidden Fortress, because the skeleton is there for something great.
Now, provided my memory serves me correctly, when we watch No Regrets For Our Youth next week we’ll be entering a period of Kurosawa where the technique and philosophy will start to blend together. We’ve gotten flashes of that before, but brief sparks aren’t enough anymore.
That sounded dramatic. I promise I won’t leave you Kyle.
Next week: we hope there will be little to regret.