Thursday, December 9, 2010

Movie Review: The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (虎の尾を踏む男達) is the fourth film shot by Japan's most famous movie director, Akira Kurosawa.[1] Many of his films are considered among the greatest ever made, including Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Ikiru, Yojimbo, and many others. It tells the story of a war hero, Yoshitsune, and his six retainers who are trying to escape into a country to the north. They are fleeing an execution order issued by the Shogun, Yoritomo, who is also Yoshitsune's brother. But the border guards have been warned of their coming. And along the way they are beset by a nosy peasant.

The first time I tried to watch this film, several years ago, I fell asleep. That was partly due to the fact that it was a VHS copy, which meant that the image quality was quite poor, due both to the age of the cassette and to the inherent limitations of VHS. This time I had it on DVD from Netflix and the image quality was much better.

One thing to keep in mind when watching Japanese films: Japanese humor is very different from Western humor. And Japanese acting is different from Western acting. This may be due to the fact that Japanese theater (kibuki and noh) is highly stylized and abstract. So to appreciate the films, you may have to (at least initially) overlook the humor and/or acting. Despite that, the nosy peasant (who is the main source of comic relief), does grow on you as the movie progresses.

This film includes the actor Takashi Shimura (who starred in many of Kurosawa's films [2]), but only in a supporting role. After Japan lost World War II, this film was banned because it positively portrays the feudal system of Japan.[3] Since that feudalism was believed, in part, to be responsible for Japanese imperialism and atrocities, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, General Douglas McArthur, banned all media which praised or recommended it.[4]

My verdict: The film wasn't terribly engaging and there were some things that prevented it from being a great film (e.g. the music, which was sometimes overly dramatic or inappropriate for the mood of a particular scene).[5] However, at 59 minutes long, the lack of engagement is not too burdensome (though ten minutes could've been cut from the end without harming the story). If you're a fan of Kurosawa, then by all means see this one. Otherwise, you probably won't find it worth your time.


[1] At least, in the United States.

[2] He appeared in 21 of Kurosawa's 30 films. Toshirō Mifune, who is arguably more famously associated with Kurosawa, only appeared in 16 of those 30.

[4] Some of the other topics banned by Gen. McArthur can be seen here.

[5] This has also been my opinion of the early films of several other great directors, including David Lean (In Which We Serve), Steven Spielberg (The Sugarland Express), George Lucas (1:42.08 and 6-18-67), and Zhang Yimou (To Live).

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