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.