The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (虎の尾を踏む男達, Akira Kurosawa, 1952)

Like many directors of his age, Akira Kurosawa began his career during the war sometimes working on what were effectively propaganda films yet perhaps attempting to skirt around the least palatable implications of the task at hand. The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (虎の尾を踏む男達, Tora no O wo Fumu Otokotachi) is an example of just that, repurposing a well known historical incident from its noh and kabuki roots and subtly undercutting it with a dose of irreverent humour unwelcome to those who liked historical tales because of their nationalistic connotations. This was not, however, the reason the film found itself out of favour so much as an ironically personal issue in which Kurosawa had apparently irritated one of the censors by pointing out his ignorance of cultural tradition leading him to conveniently leave Tiger’s Tail off the list of titles in production resulting in the American Censors rejecting it for being an unknown, illegal film which is why it languished on the shelf for seven years after filming was completed in 1945. The Americans may not have liked it much either given their aversion to period drama which they feared encouraged the kind of thinking incompatible with the democratic era, but like many of Kurosawa’s samurai dramas it has a rather ambivalent attitude to feudal loyalty both admiring of nobility and despairing of its austerity. 

Set in the late 12th century, the action takes place during a period of warfare in which warrior Yoshitsune (Iwai Hanshiro X) has returned a victory for his brother, the ruler. His brother Yoritomo, however, feels as if his victory has perhaps been too good and he is therefore a threat to him. Yoritomo accuses his brother of sedition and puts a purge in motion, leaving Yoshitsune with no option other than to flee. With six of his best retainers, he escapes dressed as an itinerant Buddhist monk and tries to make his way to neutral territory in the North. To get there, however, they need to pass through a series of checkpoints which is why they’re currently accompanied by a cheerful fool in the form of a lowly porter (Kenichi Enomoto) supposedly guiding them along a secret path through mountain forests. 

The porter is a new addition to the story added by Kurosawa for reasons of expediency and comic relief, yet his intrusion is also one which deeply angered the more nationalistic of the censors who resented the director’s irreverence towards a key historical event. Like many other of Kurosawa’s bumbling peasants, he’s both contemptuous and in awe of the world of the samurai, offering down to earth common sense takes on the politics of the day. He has already heard all about the Yoritomo/Yoshitsune drama and recounts it in the manner of a soap opera, quite reasonably asking if a quarrel between brothers could not have been sorted out with a good old-fashioned private fist fight rather than a state mandated manhunt which is also quite inconvenient for ordinary people in addition to being somewhat heartless. 

The samurai, not wanting to break cover, can only look sad and lament the cruelty of their codes, yet it’s precisely in the subversion of their ideology that they are able to escape. They have already transgressed, some with shaved heads and all already in the clothes of a monk. The porter looks at Yoshitsune, apparently a successful warrior, and remarks on his delicate physique and seeming femininity. Eventually he says too much, realises that the men are the fugitives everyone’s looking for and is suddenly afraid, forgetting for the moment that they need him to get out of the woods and knowing that samurai think nothing of killing “insignificant nobodies” like him. Nevertheless they do not kill him, but on hearing that there are lookouts on the horizon aware of Yoshitsune’s presence, they ask their lord to change places with a peasant, wearing his worn out clothes and carrying his heavy pack though the weight of it perhaps betrays him. As the porter points out, he does not have the look of a man used to trekking through the mountains and his delicate legs are already shaking under the unfamiliar strain. 

When the band is intercepted by loyal retainer Togashi (Susumu Fujita) who has been instructed to stop all priests in case Yoshitsune comes his way, Benkei (Denjiro Okochi), a real monk if also a warrior with a talent for bluff, manages to talk his way out of Togashi’s questioning, improvising an entire prospectus on the spot to convince him that they really are collecting money to repair a temple, quickly explaining that his robes are ornate because even ascetics have fashion sense. It’s not entirely clear if Togashi simply believes him, or if he too is wilfully subverting the code having recognised Yoshitsune and decided to help him escape. Might that not, in a certain sense, be the better way of serving a lord, preventing him from making a huge and painful mistake in killing his own brother out of a misplaced sense of paranoia? 

In any case, Benkei talks his way out of trouble only for a minor retainer to intervene, insisting that the porter is too pretty and bears a striking resemblance to Yoshitsune. Reacting quickly again, Benkei does the unthinkable. He strikes his lord and loudly berates him as if he really were a lazy porter failing in the duties for which he has been paid. The real porter becomes upset, placing himself in between Benkei’s staff and Yoshitsune’s body, either out of empathetic identification or horror in the betrayal of feudal loyalty. Benkei knows he must now be believed, no one would ever do what he has done because it is a complete and total negation of the samurai code. Yet in breaking it he saves his lord, which is all that really matters. Yoshitsune later forgives him, because he is a good lord after all and how could he not. But as Benkei was keen to keep pointing out, this isn’t the only checkpoint they must pass and their journey is without end, all they can do is “continue without rest”, taking this brief moment of unexpected levity provided by apology wine from Togashi and the hilarious antics from the porter before setting off once again. As for the porter, he is soon abandoned, left on one side of the samurai divide as the curtain closes on this brief strange tale. 


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Battle of Roses (薔薇合戦, Mikio Naruse, 1950)

Mikio Naruse was famously unhappy with most of his ’40s work, believing that his career did not begin to revive until the release of Ginza Cosmetics in 1951. The late ‘40s were indeed a difficult time in terms of the industry as Naruse’s home studio, Toho, became entrenched in a series of labour disputes which eventually led to the creation of new studio “Shin Toho” (lit. “new Toho”). Naruse meanwhile though sympathetic to the cause kept a low profile working in theatre and thereafter with other studios such as Shochiku which is where he made 1950’s Battle of Roses (薔薇合戦, Bara Kassen) .

Perhaps because of its turbulent production genesis, Battle of Roses is a distinctly unpolished and surprisingly reactionary take on female liberation adapted from a newspaper serial following the lives of three sisters pursuing different paths in the complicated post-war society. The action opens with the death of the husband of the eldest sister, Masago (Kuniko Miyake), who had been the head of cosmetics studio White Lily but is currently under-investigation for large-scale embezzlement of which it appears he is almost certainly guilty. After he dies, Masago inherits the company but is pursued by massive debts to the film’s villain, Mogi (Toru Abe), who is also after the most pure hearted of the sisters, Hinako (Setsuko Wakayama). Masago makes some kind of shady arrangement with her husband’s former associate Kasahara (Eitaro Shindo), pays off the debt, and starts her own rival company Nigera where she is the CEO. Youngest sister Chisuzu (Yoko Katsuragi), meanwhile, also works at Nigera but is a fully modern woman who wants “to be free and know everything about life”, resentful of her sister’s authority and planning to move out into her own apartment where she later begins a “trial” marriage with Ejima (Shiro Osaka), a journalist from Fashion and Films magazine who turns out to be no good at all.

The sisters are each, in a sense, punished for a perceived naivety in the way they pursue their goals, the implication being that they are mere women thrown unprepared into a male world they lack the skills to navigate. This is most obviously true of Masago who is shown to be a surprisingly astute business woman but a bad judge of character while also criticised for wielding her femininity by leveraging her business affairs through Kasahara who nevertheless declares that he wants to keep their business and personal relationships separate which is why the original loan comes with interest. Masago then gives an accountancy job to her inexperienced boyfriend who proves up to it, but also creates tension in the office seeing as she is unwilling to go public about their relationship even after they agree to marry while he remains resentful of Kasahara.

After spotting her with Mogi who continues to pursue her despite her obvious dislike of him, Masago contrives to have Hinako marry a trusted assistant, Hinatsu (Mitsuo Nagata), pushing her into a marriage against her will to prove her sisterly loyalty while Hinako herself has taken a liking to divorced advertising executive Sonoike (Koji Tsuruta) who is the film’s only real “good” man. Hinatsu, however, turns out to be less reliable than Masago thought, resentful that his marriage to Hinako while guaranteeing continued employment has actually adversely affected his career prospects with Masago unwilling to promote him for fear of claims of nepotism. To avoid “ending up like Hinako”, Chisuzu agrees to a weird quasi-marriage with Ejima in which she insists that they live separately so that he won’t “meddle” in her life because “men only want to stay in a superior position”.

Chisuzu is later taken to task for attempting a take a “male” role in terms of her sexual agency, Ejima’s wife (Noriko Sengoku) suddenly turning up with a child on her back to refer to her husband as a “male mistress” and demand money from Chisuzu who has already been guilted into handing over vast sums to Ejima to prove her love. Ejima later threatens to blackmail the whole family with a tell all book detailing what he’s learned about the “immoral” lives of the three sisters behind Nigera cosmetics. Meanwhile, Hinako’s marriage has also gone south the extent that Hinatsu eventually tries to steam her to death by locking her in the bathroom and stoking up the fire only to think better of it in the nick of time, causing her a miscarriage and landing her in the hospital for three months during which Sonoike continues to send her flowers while Hinatsu struggles to understand why she might not want to accompany him on the job transfer he is forced to accept after he’s discovered to have committed fraud while having an affair with a woman from sales.

Hinako is punished, essentially, for excessive womanliness in trying to make everyone happy by suppressing her own feelings, rejecting her agency in deference to her sister who is punished for being too “manly” in business while Chisuzu is punished for being sexually liberated and behaving “like a man” in terms of her desire to maintain romantic independence. Sonoike’s ex-wife is seemingly punished for the same thing, desperately trying to win her husband back after cheating on him but is rejected for her transgression in her foolishness at being taken in by a faithless man. The sisters are forced to acknowledge the mistakes they’ve made, making a fresh start with more humble ambitions pushed back towards the feminine norms, e.g. a “small shop” for Masago rather than a big company while Chisuzu returns “home”. Only Hinako is given the possibility of a more positive future in seizing her own agency to follow her heart’s desire, ending her marriage to the adulterous Hinatsu and perhaps finally entering a romance with the patient Sonoike. Somewhat different in style from typical Naruse with its shorter scenes echoing fast paced city life, inelegant cuts and abrupt scene transitions, Battle of Roses lands less as a condemnation of male manipulation and duplicity than a subtle implication that women aren’t equipped for independence and are best defended by “good” men, Sonoike on hand to sort out each of the women’s problems with rational calm, even while offering the sisters the possibility of starting over once the storm has passed.