Thursday, 24 June 2010

'They Who Step on the Tiger's Tail' review: A brief, but thoroughly enjoyable, early Kurosawa film...

Here is a follow-up to yesterday's post regarding my trip to see a very rare early Kurosawa film at the BFI Southbank. I didn't know quite what to expect from the 1945 film 'They Who Step on the Tiger's Tail' but I was really pleasantly surprised by what I saw tonight. One of the few things I knew about the film before going in was that it based on an old 12th Century Japanese tale and uses aspects of Nah and Kabuki theatre adaptations in its telling. I worried slightly that this may be alienating or (frankly) boring to watch, but actually the film was really well paced and consistently entertaining. Of course, it helped that it ran at a brisk 58 minutes in length.

'They Who Step on the Tiger's Tail' really feels like the simple, effective telling of an age-old tale. What surprised me the most was that, despite the fact the film pre-dates his "golden period", many of Kurosawa's trademark shots and techniques are visible here. There are screenwipes, quick cuts between multiple protagonists and even many of his consistent themes are invoked (humanist values, criticism of traditional values and the emphasis on male characters). Furthermore, the film features a number of actors he would later rely on such as Masayuki Mori ('Rashomon', 'The Idiot', 'The Bad Sleep Well'), Susumu Fujita ('Yojimbo', 'The Hidden Fortress') and the great Takashi Shimura (too many to mention, most famously 'Ikiru' and 'Seven Samurai').

As I wrote yesterday, I couldn't pass up the chance to see this rarely screened film which is unavailable on DVD (at least in the UK). I wondered what the quality of the print would be like for this movie and when it started it was plain to see not only that this piece of film had been around since the film's US release in 1952, but that it was an American version. For one thing the subtitles looked like they had been scratched directly onto the film and, more obviously, the opening credits and titles were all in English. There was also a three page forward giving the context of the story and telling us that "this is a story which is loved by the Japanese". Sometimes the sound went and even the picture cut out at other times, but I found that strangely charming. After seeing the remastered splendour of 'Rashomon' the week before, it was sort of nice to see what a used and abused print looked like. It was a great advert for the likes of Martin Scorsese, who tell us frequently about the need to restore and maintain older films. Hopefully somebody will do the same for this movie before it is worn out of existence!

This is not to criticise the BFI at all. They deserve kudos for finding and screening such an unsung and obscure film as this as part of their Kurosawa season. The screening (admittedly in one of the smaller screens) was pleasingly quite well attended too and the movie played to a good atmosphere, with the comedy of contemporary comedian Kenichi "Enoken" Enomoto going down a storm. Enoken is really exaggerated and campy throughout but his porter character (introduced to the tale by Kurosawa) is what makes the film satirical, as he undermines the heroism and traditional values of the party of soldiers he is in service of. Displaying all the cowardice and opportunism of the lowly pair later seen in 'The Hidden Fortress', the porter delightfully contradicts the earnest Bushido of the rest of the film.

I don't usually go in for plot synopsis here, but seeing as this film is so hard to come by it might be a good idea. Basically, a group of warriors are disguised as travelling monks in order to escort their lord safely into another territory as he is on the run after a dispute with the ruling clan (in another plot element reminiscent of 'The Hidden Fortress'). However, they are expected at the checkpoint barrier and the film mainly involves a stand-off between the head warrior (Captain Beneki, played by the wonderful Denjiro Okochi) and the barrier guard (Togashi, played by Fujita) as he attempts to convince him that the group are the monks they claim to be. It is sometimes funny, sometimes actually very tense and always gripping stuff.

When the barrier guards recognise one of the porters as the wanted lord, Beneki trashes his master with a stick, supposedly to discipline him for being slow. Convinced that a warrior would never beat his master the barrier guard agree to let the men pass. Apparently the debate among Japanese fans of the old tale is whether Togashi knows that Beneki is lying or not, perhaps deciding to let him pass regardless. However here, in this telling, I believe Kurosawa has Togashi convinced by the beating, so stuck is he in an old code of honour now obsolete. Or at least, if not wholly convinced, Beneki breaks all the rules and Togashi is socially unable to accuse another man of his class of that dishonesty and ultimate shame. To deal with his shame at beating his master (in order to save his life) Beneki is shown to drink a barrel full of sake, much like Toshiro Mifune's Kikuchiyo does in 'Seven Samurai' after his own shameful episode.

Despite its brevity there is a lot to take in after watching 'They Who Step on the Tiger's Tail', a complex and thoroughly entertaining film. I had expected to find myself appreciating it more than liking it and had hoped to see the genesis of some of Kurosawa's later work represented in this early film. Instead what I was treated to was a film full of such moments, but which also worked completely in its own right. It was made quite cheaply and is entirely set-bound (with painted exterior backdrops), but it is quite atmospheric all the same thanks to Kurosawa's direction and the photography of Takeo Itô (who later worked on 'Drunken Angel'). Enoken's rampant over-acting may grate with some, so (intentionally) at odds is it with the rest of the piece, but if you get the chance to see it some time in the future then I would recommend you spend 58 minutes watching 'They Who Step on the Tiger's Tail'. Especially if you appreciate Kurosawa's later work.

'They Who Step on the Tiger's Tail' is currently exempt from classification by the BBFC. However, with the complete absence of shown violence or any bad language it would comfortably receive a 'U' in my opinion.

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