Japanese Film Reviews #2: Kurosawa Akira’s MEN WHO TREAD ON THE TIGER’S TAIL

The second installment of my film series, this time it’s Akira Kurosawa’s 1945 Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail.

Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail Review

Akira Kurosawa’s 1945 film was made and distributed during one of the most pivotal moments of Japanese history. To boost civilian and soldier morale during the Asia-Pacific War, the Japanese Imperial government financed many films that glorified Japan’s feudal past and idealized the sacred bonds of loyalty that supposedly existed between lord and vassal (and by extension the emperor with all Japanese citizens). Akira Kurosawa’s 1945 film Men who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (Tora no o fumu otokotachi) is no exception. An adaptation of the famous kabuki play Kanjincho, the story revolves around the relationship between Yoshitsune and his loyal vassal Benkei, a warrior-monk. Though the film was initially criticized as being too democratic by the Imperial government before Japan’s surrender, it was banned by the American Occupation for it’s “feudalistic idea of loyalty” and was not released until 1952. With the exception of an additional porter, who adds a very Western-style comic relief to the film, Kurosawa’s adaptation is almost a straight reproduction of the kabuki play.[1] Therefore, the film contains both a representation of Tokugawa-era sentiments as well as the ideology of the 1940s.

The film opens with Yoshitsune and his companions, disguised as monks, trekking through a mountain trail, attempting to escape the wrath of his suspicious half-brother Yoritomo. Interestingly, Kurosawa chooses to keep Yoshitsune’s face obscured from the audiences’ view, revealing it only at the end of the film. In order to pass through a military checkpoint without generating suspicion, Yoshitsune dresses himself as a porter, hiding his face under a large straw hat. The musical chorus, taken directly from the kabuki play, mournfully describes the moment, “The sight of this spent, bending lord / who never carried a load before / is painful to look upon / and we must sigh with grief.”[2] This is a surprisingly weak description of Yoshitsune, who was considered to be one of the most talented military commanders of his time. Furthermore, over the centuries, Yoshitsune’s life had been infused with tales of the young boy learning swordsmanship from mythical mountain goblins, or tengū. In Kurosawa’s film, he seems barely carry a porter’s pack, much less lift a sword or command an army. Surprisingly, Yoshitsune issues no commands or even speaks for the majority of the film. Instead, it is the strong and cunning Benkei who makes all of the decisions and leads the group.

Traveling through the mountainous trail, the group is informed by their porter that the checkpoint is heavily armed and has been told to be on the lookout for warriors disguised as monks. Hearing this, the samurai talk amongst themselves, trying to outline a course of action:

“Now that our enemies have come this far, we are trapped no matter what we chose to do.”

“We are trapped, so we have no choice by to break through.”

“We won’t spare anybody, not even the general himself!”

“We will attack and kill them all!”

“Good idea! We will destroy everyone and everything before we kill ourselves.”[3]

This dialogue is the typical conversation one would expect to hear from a group of cornered samurai. Accepting their defeat, they are ready to face death head on and die gloriously for their lord. Such ideology was common during the Tokugawa period, as well as 1940s Japan, and promoted by influential samurai thinkers such as Yamamoto Tsunetomo. To compensate for the growing irrelevancy of martial valor, Yamamoto advocated an extreme adherence to honor, loyalty, and duty in his samurai treatise Hagakure. Yamamoto states that in the service of his master, a samurai should be ready, even eager, to accept death at any moment.[4] However, Yamamoto’s view of bushido was not the dominant philosophy of the time. In his paper “Death, Honor, and Loyalty: The Bushido Ideal,” G. Cameron Hurst states, “The few Tokugawa works which explicitly use the term bushido turn out, in fact, to be a very narrow stream of thought essentially out of touch with the broader spectrum of Neo-Confucian ideas to which most of the samurai class adhered.”[5] Clearly, Yamamoto was not the only authority on samurai honor during the Tokugawa period. Hagakure’s interpretation of bushido is one motivated by vanity, whereas Yamaga Soko, another samurai-turned-philosopher of the seventeenth century, wishes samurai to uphold honor, loyalty, and duty regardless of personal cost. Paul Varley aptly points out this fundamental difference in Japanese Culture, “Yamaga Soko’s idea of bushido, according to which the samurai of Tokugawa times should serve as exemplars of loyalty and morality…conceived loyalty and morality in Confucian terms…[Tsunetomo’s ideal samurai] were motivated largely by more particularistic, feudal sentiments of personal honor and loyalty. Their main concern was about their honor and their loyalty, not about honor and loyalty as universal ideals…Tsunetomo’s central concern was, in fact, not at all with loyalty but with honor. We can observe this… [when] he stresses avoidance of shame, the mortal enemy of honor, above all else.”[6] Rejecting this selfish form of bushido, Benkei admonishes the samurai for their over-eagerness:

“You fools! I might overlook young warriors talking like this, but what’s this all about? If bravery was the only factor, we’d have died several times already. As I told you just now, this barrier isn’t the last. The most important thing is our lord’s life. Bravery comes after that.”[7] [Italics mine]

Such an attitude more accurately reflects the neo-Confucian values of the Tokugawa era rather than the fanatical ideology of Imperial Japan during the 1940s. Because the version of bushido promoted during the Asia-Pacific War prevented the samurai/soldiers from thinking rationally and stated that shame could only be avoided with death, it was essentially a philosophy concerned solely with the fanatical desire to die. This fanaticism is seen clearly in Yukio Mishima’s interpretation of Hagakure, “The occupation of the samurai is death. No matter how peaceful the age, death is the samurai’s supreme motivation, and if a samurai was to fear or shun death, in that instant he would cease to be a samurai.”[8] However, such a death would be utterly pointless and wasteful. Benkei, completely aware of this, disregards Hagakure’s philosophy of ‘pure action’ and chooses to defend the interests of his lord Yoshitsune instead. Thus, the group continues on with their plan to slip through the checkpoint without resorting to violence.

Benkei leads the group into the checkpoint, where they are questioned by Marshal Togashi, who is in charge of barricade. After convincing Togashi that they are indeed traveling monks by reciting a Buddhist scroll from memory, Benkei leads the samurai through the camp. Just as they are about to leave, another samurai halts them, claiming that one of their porters resembles Yoshitsune. To avert suspicion, Benkei beats Yoshitsune. Togashi states that, “There is no vassal who would strike his master,”[9] and allows the party to leave. As described by Donald Richie, “The beating of a lord by his retainer is directly contrary to the ethos of Japanese feudalism and, though Togashi suspects, he is moved by this that he not only allows the party to proceed but sends a train of bearers after them with sake.”[10] Kurosawa leaves it ambiguous whether Benkei really did fool Togashi or if the samurai, moved by Benkei’s loyalty, allowed them to escape even though he knew the porter was in fact Yoshitsune. Rather than celebrate their victory, Benkei immediately falls to his knees and begs Yoshitsune’s forgiveness for such an unbearable transgression. It is hear that Yoshitsune’s face is fully revealed, an exceedingly young and effeminate boy. He forgives Benkei as a father would a child. The relationship between lord and samurai was intended to be affectionate and similar to that of parent and child, much like the theoretical relationship between the Japanese people and the emperor.

Despite Yoshitsune’s passive character and feminine appearance, he is not portrayed as weak. His power stems not from his intelligence, physical strength, or martial skill, but rather from the loyalty of his vassals. This representation could be due to several reasons. First, Tokugawa Japan highly emphasized the importance of the lord-vassal relationship. If a daimyo’s drew his strength primarily from the loyalty of his vassals, then their role became one of paramount importance of the survival of the clan. Even the samurai was otherwise idle and useless, as samurai increasingly were during the Tokugawa period, at least he could contribute to the success of his lord by being a loyal vassal. Second, during the Asia-Pacific War, the Japanese state promoted a reverential image of the emperor and extended the lord-vassal relationship that had dominated the samurai class during the Tokugawa period to the entire Japanese population. The message was clear that the country was only as strong as the loyalty of its citizens. Japanese citizens thus had a personal obligation, for the very sake of the future of the empire, to support the emperor. Like Benkei and Yoshitsune, if Japanese citizens and soldiers were filial and loyal to the emperor, then they too could contribute to the glory of the Japanese empire.

[1] Richie, Donald. The Films of Akira Kurosawa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999, pp. 31-32.

[2] Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail. Dir. Kurosawa Akira. Toho Studies, 1945.

[3] Kurosawa, 1945.

[4] Tsunetomo, Yamamoto. Hagakure. Trans. William Scott Wilson. Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 1979, pp. 23.

[5] Hurst III, G. Cameron. “Death, Honor, and Loyalty: The Bushido Ideal.” Philosophy East & West 40 (1990), pp. 515.

[6] Varley, Paul. Japanese Culture. 4th ed. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000, pp. 210-213.

[7] Kurosawa, 1945.

[8] Mishima, Yukio. The Way of the Samurai: Yukio Mishima on Hagakure in Modern Life. Trans. Kathryn Sparling. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1977, pp. 23.

[9] Kurosawa, 1945.

[10] Richie, 31.

Works Cited

Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail. Dir. Kurosawa Akira. Toho Studies, 1945.

Hurst III, G. Cameron. “Death, Honor, and Loyalty: The Bushido Ideal.” Philosophy East & West 40 (1990), pp. 515.

Mishima, Yukio. The Way of the Samurai: Yukio Mishima on Hagakure in Modern Life. Trans. Kathryn Sparling. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1977, pp. 23.

Richie, Donald. The Films of Akira Kurosawa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999, pp. 31-32.

Tsunetomo, Yamamoto. Hagakure. Trans. William Scott Wilson. Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 1979, pp. 23.

Varley, Paul. Japanese Culture. 4th ed. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000, pp. 210-213.

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Comments (4)

  1. Robert Hyland


    Again, another very intersting review. I stumbled on your youtube channel looking up Yotsuya Kaidan info, and am very impressed by your depth of knowledge and research. You do tend to give very long plot summaries however, and your analysis of the films is much more interesting than the plot recap. But some excellent work, and you’ve got excellent taste in obscure things!

    However, don’t over -generalize. Ennoken was, afterall, a Japanese comic actor!!! So while Kurosawa wanted to add comic relief, that’s not necessarily a non-Japanese thing to do! Ennoken was already famous for being like the Japanese Jerry Lewis. It was predominantly the wartime censors who thought that Kurosawa was devaluing the historical play, but Kurosawa responds to his critics on this account in his autobiography (Something like an autobiography), calling the critics psychopaths with sexual manias, who saw westernization in anything that didn’t fit with their particular ideological outlook. (and indeed this sentiment was shared by many filmmakers, who tended to be leftist in contradistinction with the wartime ideologues – don’t forget many Japanese leftists were arrested in the 1930s, as depicted in Kurosawa’s later No Regrets for our Youth). Those war-time censors who criticized Kurosawa were not speaking for all Japanese, but rather had an ideological and political mandate to ‘shape’ Japanese in a particular ideological direction that was useful for the war effort, but which after the militarist period acknowledged that militarism and ‘japanism’ aren’t necessarily the same thing.

    Unfortunately, that attitude that Kurosawa was somehow less Japanese stuck, and was further compounded in the 1970s by David Desser in his (pseudo-racist) book Picturing Japaneseness. But this attitude simply argues that becasue Kurosawa was appreciated by the west, he must somehow be western – like, again denying the very real reason that much Japanese film was not purchased by Western distributors for rather offensive reasons. Don’t forget, it was Kurosawa’s samurai films that first got his attention in the west.

    But this ‘Kurosawa as western-like argument has more to do with politics and ideology rather than cultural identification. As Donald Richie argues, his use of Ennoken would be like casting Jerry Lewis in Hamlet, something that would also outrage many in the West. If Whoppie Goldberg were to play Othello, I’m sure it would raise a few eyebrows.

    However, there is an oblique way in which Kurosawa’s comic touch is ‘westernized.’ There was a western influence apparent throughout Kurosawa’s work, in Kurosawa’s appreciation of Brechtian verfremdungseffect or distanciation, (a technique that outraged Brecht’s audience in germany ten years previuos) and that is the strategy of creating contrast between material and treatment (giving a serious story a light touch, or inserting any incongrous strategies that force the audience to ‘step back’ from the text). So, the choice to use comedy in such a serious tale, was for Kurosawa, an intellectual decision to help remove the audience from the play and thereby force them to engage differently in Togashi’s decision making process. But the use of comedy is not related to Kurosawa being ‘westernized’ but rather is a product of someone who had an intellectual relationship to his work.

    A lot of people tend to ‘westernize’ Kurosawa, and while he was very knowledgable about western culture (as MANY Japanese artists have been), to presume that such a knowledge compromises his Japaneseness is to deny the fact that he was born and raised Japanese, never learned English, and stated himself that he ‘is a Japanese, and made films for young Japanese people,’

    March 13, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      I really have to thank you for this comment; 1) It’s very good and full of extremely relevant and insightful points and 2) It alerted me to the fact that for some bizarre reason, I had the ‘Shin Heike Monogatari’ review posted on this page and NOT the ‘Men Who Tread…’ one. I’m not sure if you’ve had the opportunity to read it, but it might be a little more clear than the YouTube review.

      I absolutely agree that the war-time censors who criticized Kurosawa were not speaking for the general Japanese population. Considerable time and energy were devoted to shaping an ideology that reinforced Japan’s imperial ambitions and later the war effort. I did not intend to imply that any ideology that existed during the 1930s~1940s is representative of Japan or ‘Japaneseness’ as a whole (or any ideology of any time for that matter). I do think it is interesting to look at changing depictions of historical figures, loyalty and honor and examine what they might show us about the period in which they were created. This film review itself is part of a larger essay that exams at the different depictions of Yoshitsune found within the ‘Heike Monogatari,’ ‘Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail,’ and the recent taiga drama ‘Yoshitsune.’

      Nor did I intent to say that Kurosawa is a ‘Western’ director or that he is popular in the West because of some sort of ‘Western-ness.’ But I do think it is fair to say Kurosawa, while undeniably Japanese as both a director and a person, was influenced by Western culture. But even films like ‘Ran’ and ‘Throne of Blood’ are Japanese films made for a Japanese audience, despite their original influences.

      I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, an expert on Kurosawa. I found your comment extremely valuable and informative. I completely agree with your points about Ennoken, war-time censorship, and Kurosawa’s supposed ‘Westerness.’ I’m extremely happy that you shared them with me and I think that this comment will also allow other people who read this blog entry to build a much more nuanced view of this film and Kurosawa’s work in general.


      March 13, 2010
  2. Robert Hyland

    sorry, correction, not David Desser, meant Darrell William Davis’ Picturing Japaneseness . . .

    March 13, 2010
  3. Yellow Toenails

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    January 14, 2016

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