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They Who Step on Tiger's Tail (Kurosawa Akira 1945)


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They Who Step on Tiger's Tail
[Tora no O wo Fumu Otokotachi]

Genre: Historical Samurai Tale (Kamakura Era 1185-1392 AD)

review in one breath

This very early Kurosawa film retells the historical tale of Yoshitsune's perilous and skillful escape from the hands of his warring brother. It is a legendary tale, well-beloved in Japanese history, here brought to the screen in a highly entertaining and effective way. This is truly one to check out.


intro

What a little gem this is.

This is director Kurosawa Akira's seventh directed film and is based on an actual historical event taking place only a year or two after the collapse of the Taira (Heike) Clan. This collapse, captured in the great literary work Heike Monogatari, marks the transition from the Heian Era to the Kamakura Period on the Japanese timeline.

Here's a little TRUE history:

Instrumental in the defeat of the Taira were the two brothers, Yoritomo (the elder) and Yoshitsune (the younger), the last remaining Genji heirs yet spared at a very young age by a Taira Lord from being murdered along with their parents, servants and soldiers. (The Genji/Minamoto Family had been in preeminent political power until its overthrow by the Taira/Heike Family.)

As these two Genji brothers grew in age, they plotted against the Taira Clan in order to once again restore the prominence of the Genji Family. The elder Yoritomo always presumed the seat of preeminence in their efforts, while the younger Yoshitsune consistently demonstrated his skill in the heat of battle, both militarily and personally.

To make a long (and VERY interesting) story short, these two brothers, the last remaining heirs of the Genji family, eventually overthrow the entire Taira Clan. THIS is the tale captured forever in the Heike Monogatari.

Thus the courageous exploits of Yoshitsune are legendary and thoroughly permeate historical folk tales. One prominent tale recollects how the fierce swordsmanship of the young Yoshitsune overcame the renowned militant monk Benkei at Gojoe Bridge. (This tale is reenacted in the recent film Gojoe.) Following Benkei's humiliating defeat he swore allegiance to Yoshitsune and thereafter followed him on many more harrowing adventures, including the dramatic adventure depicted in this current film.

Following the defeat of the Taira Family in 1185, Yoshitsune's legendary popularity began to gnaw at his elder brother Yoritomo. Even during his living years, Yoshitsune had become the hero of folk songs and folk plays (Noh). Seeing this, Yoritomo, whose ambitions for power were quickly becoming his utmost priority, and who had secured for himself the primary seat of power in Kamakura, decided he would no longer see his brother, therefore depriving him of the blessing of the Shogunate.

After waiting three weeks at Kamakura to see his brother, Yoshitsune finally realized that their familial tie was broken and thus quickly set out to gather forces in order to attack Yoritomo. It is precisely at this point where, with Yoritomo's forces diligently hunting for him, Yoshitsune, along with Benkei and small handful of men headed northward through mountainous passes, dressed as monks so as to hide their true identities.

The small band had decided in advance that should they be stopped, they would claim they had been sent to rebuild the Todaiji Temple in Nara (Kyoto). They also decided to dress Yoshitsune as one of the porters to further avoid attention. This prepared strategy paid off when they were indeed stopped at the mountain pass of Ataka. There, they deceived the military commander, but not before an incredible event took place. When suspicion was raised that one of the porters may be Yoshitsune in disguise, Benkei promptly scolded the disguised Yoshitsune and beat him with his rod.

Thinking it impossible that anyone could dare touch the Lord Yoshitsune in such a matter, the military commander let them go. The ancient historical chronicles describe this moment as follows:

"The barrier guards dismiss them and they, feeling as men who've trod scatheless upon a tiger's tail or escaped a serpent's poisoned fangs, shoulder their chests and cry farewell, and down to Mutsu make their way"

It is from this excerpt of the ancient chronicle that the film's title is taken.

verdict

In nearly every way, even down to the title of the film, this film accurately depicts a true and infamous episode in the legendary lives of Yoshitsune and Benkei. Director Kurosawa effectively draws out the tension, sadness and fateful bravery of the incident, as well as throws into the mix some of his own skillful additions.

Undoubtedly the main personality in Kurosawa's retelling is the (wholly fictional and) happily simple porter whose antics are a stark contrast to the highly disciplined and contemplative band of monks. This notion of a light-hearted, comedic character amidst an otherwise dangerous tale is something Kurosawa will continually explore. You can see this idea in perfected forms in later Kurosawa films such as Hidden Fortress and Seven Samurai (using Mifune as the comedic samurai).

This is indeed a film I whole-heartedly recommend, but not without the following warnings:

The DVD I viewed was distributed through "Mei An Entertainment" which is of Hong Kong origin. Thus the subtitles are TERRIBLE as regards their accuracy (and this is customary for all similarly released films). The translators do not even bother with accurate Japanese names. Thus Yoshitsune is referred to as "Yee" (!) throughout the film; Benkei is "Hing"; and rather than Kamakura, the band is trekking through the "Country of Ka". Absolutely no mention is made of the actual historical context or characters of this tale.

Hell, you'd have to crack open some history texts just to figure this film out! (Or read SaruDama. :P)

Besides the god-awful subtitles, the visual quality of this DVD is very poor. Granted this is a 1945 Japanese film, and other similarly aged Japanese films I have seen are also poorly preserved...

I'm just saying... getting. very. dizzy.

And lastly, for accuracy's sake, Kurosawa completed this film in September of 1945 (and this "completed in" date is clearly declared in the film's credits). However it seems that it was not picked up and released by a production studio until 1952 (by Toho Productions). Due to the film's own prominent display of the 1945 date, nearly all Western sources use it as the film's release date. Japanese sources (such as JMDb) use the actual release date of 1952.

[One final final comment: If you do indeed watch this DVD and have problems (as I did) accessing the English subtitles on the prologue text, don't fret. It simply states how Yee and Yo-Yo (I don't recall how they refer to Yoritomo) were dueling brothers following a military decision and that Yee and a small band of his men were like "homeless dogs" wandering the mountains.]

Version reviewed: Region 1 (craptastically) subtitled DVD available via mainstream US venues.

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Very early film by Kurosawa Akira accurately retelling a historically legendary event in the life of Yoshitsune and Benkei. No violence, but the potential for bloodshed is throughout. Nope. This is definitely one to check out (though be prepared for terrible subtitles and DVD quality).

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