Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Noble Lord Yoshitsune and his Hilarious Porter: Some Notes on Akira Kurosawa’s The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail

*This post discusses major plot details of the movie, fyi.*

I’m always amazed at the movies that got made during World War II, if only by virtue of their getting made at all.  The films of this type that come most immediately to mind are Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (made in Nazi-occupied France in 1943) and Carl Th. Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (made in Nazi-occupied Denmark, also in 1943).  Now, I’m not one to frequently go into the whole “testament to the human spirit” thing, but one can’t help but be moved by the persistence of art in even these darkest of times.  Granted, it is certainly disconcerting to watch these films, both of them estimable works of art, and think, “Wow, the Holocaust was going on while they were filming this.  While Dreyer was setting up this shot, people were being killed en masse at Treblinka.” I’ve mentioned in a previous post Theodor Adorno’s famous dictum, “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz,” and my response to that remains the same: “Well, actually, there can, and there is.” I don’t remember who said this, but somebody was writing about Vladimir Nabokov, and they pointed out what seemed to be the lack of overt political engagement in his novels (a notion which I might contest, his novels are full of politics, although he has the restraint to not beat you over the head with it), but this writer went on to say that Nabokov’s response to Nazism and Communism wasn’t to pen political polemics, but rather to erect “glittering fortresses of civilization” (or something very similar; I remember being struck by the line).  The writer asserted that perhaps these fortresses would prove to be more enduring than the polemics of the time.
Nabokov, very ostentatiously catching a butterfly.

(Maybe this is from Lila Azam Zangeneh’s The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness, which I once debated purchasing at a bookstore but for which I didn’t feel like paying 23 dollars.  I read something similar in an essay about Arthur Koestler (Arthur who? Exactly!) who was a prominent intellectual from the thirties until his death, but whose fame has declined because so much of his work is polemical and focused on the very specific issues of his time and place; oh, also, it came out after he died that he raped and beat a lot of women, so that really didn’t reflect well on him).
Arthur Koestler, pictured not abusing women, but don't let that fool you.

All of this brings me to Akira Kurosawa’s The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, made in 1945; alas, I can’t find whether it was made before or after the surrender, but whatever the circumstances, this movie was made in a devastated country, with everything in short supply, hundreds of thousands of young men sent off overseas to be killed, wounded, or imprisoned, and major cities in flames.  This explains why Tiger’s Tail, at 59 minutes, is by far Kurosawa’s shortest film.

At the time of Japan’s greatest catastrophe, Kurosawa chose to make his first samurai movie, and a samurai movie based on one of the greatest Japanese samurai heroes, Minamoto no Yoshitsune.  A little historical background: In the 1180’s, the Heian era, a period of unparalleled classical Japanese refinement, came to a cataclysmic conclusion, when the two major landholding clans, the Taira (or Heike) and the Minamoto (or Genji) tore the country asunder in a bloody civil war.  The Taira were destroyed in 1185 and the Minamoto, under the leadership of Minamoto no Yoritomo, established the Kamakura shogunate.  Now, Yoritomo had a younger brother, Yoshitsune, who had made something of a hero of himself during the civil war and who had many admirers flocking about him.  Now, if you’ve just become the shogun in the aftermath of a civil war—and it only takes one civil war to set the precedent that you can have more—the idea of a sexy young general becoming more popular than you must be disconcerting.
Yoshitsune and his chief retainer, Benkei, viewing cherry blossoms, by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka.

So Yoritomo turns on his brother and Yoshitsune and a small band of loyal retainers flee, trying to make it to the semi-independent province of Mutsu in northern Honshu.  Pretty much every episode in the downfall of Yoshitsune has been mythologized in Japanese literature and music, and it appears that Kurosawa decided that his Yoshitsune movie would just focus on one of those episodes (and again, this is Japan in 1945; there’s no money to make a Yoshitsune epic).

The movie begins in media res and we find Yoshitsune and his six retainers disguised as itinerant priests and travelling through a hostile province; they are accompanied by one porter; more on him in a minute.  In order to cross out of that province, they’ll have to make it past the checkpoints of samurai loyal to Yoritomo.  The whole movie pretty much revolves around the crossing of one of these checkpoints.

But what about the porter? Because in many ways, this is the porter’s movie.  The porter is here to provide comic relief, and he provides it in spades.  If this were a Shakespeare play, the text would designate the porter as a clown.  His shtick is that he’s an obsequious, avaricious coward, and isn’t it hilarious that he’s been caught up in this major piece of history? Yes, it is.  This is the same comic potential that Tom Stoppard saw in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  The porter shouldn’t be here, by all rights, but he is, and he’s determined to ham it up and involve himself as much as possible, even if that means playing the exaggerated coward in a manner reminiscent of Woody Allen in Love and Death (1975).  And to continue on in the Shakespearian vein, one can see in this clown the fool of Ran (1985), Kurosawa’s epic samurai adaptation of King Lear (which, in sharp contrast to Tiger’s Tail, Kurosawa made with money).
The porter, as portrayed by Kenichi Enomoto.

The porter’s presence positively dominates the film, to the point that it seems downright strange.  What kind of samurai movie is this? But we must remember that we are in Kurosawa-land, and from that perspective, we can see that even here, in his first samurai movie, he’s playing with and subverting the conventions that define the genre (in the subversive style of the spaghetti westerns that I discussed in my last post).

Another point of interest is the character of Yoshitsune.  Watching him in this movie, one would never think he was the hero of great battles, because his character is remarkably passive.  He spends most of the movie silent, his face concealed by a large hat, leaving all the negotiating, all the threatening, and just generally all the action to his retainers.

It is 46 minutes into the film before we see Yoshitsune’s face (and remember, this movie is only 59 minutes long).  In the lead-up to this, we have just witnessed the great showdown at the checkpoint, with Yoshitsune’s samurai convincing the border guards that he and his retinue are itinerant priests and that Yoshitsune is one of their porters (along with the porter, of course).  Just as they’re about to leave, with everything apparently in order, one of the border guards demands that they halt and insists on having a closer look at Yoshitsune.  The guard doesn’t think that Yoshitsune looks like a porter; in fact, he thinks that Yoshitsune looks like Yoshitsune, the most famous fugitive in the country.  And then Yoshitsune’s chief retainer, Benkei, makes a brilliant decision.  He turns on Yoshitsune and begins to berate him, as he would any common porter, for calling attention to them and for general incompetence.  He even goes so far as to beat Yoshitsune with his staff.  And this is what finally convinces the border guards that the porter is just a porter, because there’s no way that a vassal would actually strike his lord, regardless of the circumstances.  And so Yoshitsune and his retinue escape, and they make their way down the road to rest from the stresses of the checkpoint incident, and everyone is happy and cheerful about Benkei’s brilliant ruse, except Benkei himself, who is devastated, because, like the border guard said, nothing could justify a vassal striking his lord.  He bows deeply before Yoshitsune and excoriates himself and one expects seppuku to be the logical outcome, but then Yoshitsune asserts himself!  The only time he takes any action in the whole movie!  He takes off his hat, and we see his youthful, feminine face for the first time, and he takes Benkei by the hand, and by his authority and his presence, he puts everyone at ease, and reassures Benkei that he did the right thing, saying, “It was not this hand that struck me, but the hand of the God of War.” And then he retreats back under his hat.
Benkei (L) and Yoshitsune.

So in this movie about a great Japanese cultural hero, the hero barely does anything, while the most active character by far is a comically foolish porter.  For a martial Japan about to enter into a post-military era, this reworking of a national myth couldn’t have been more relevant.
A shame, then, that it wasn’t actually released in Japan until 1952.  The American Occupation authorities had dictatorial censorship powers over Japanese cinema, and they did not look kindly on samurai movies, which they assumed advocated a military ethos that had no place in the recently pacified Japan of “Shogun” MacArthur.  This censorship perhaps explains why Kurosawa—so strongly associated with samurai films—spent most of the occupation making either Capra-esque dramas or hardboiled noirs.  And these were good movies, don’t get me wrong, but it just strikes me as uncanny for Kurosawa to have spent his formative years making No Regrets for our Youth rather than The Hidden Fortress.

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