Saturday, December 26, 2009

THEY WHO STEP ON TIGER'S TAIL (Akira Kurosawa, 1945, Japan) Two brothers are moral prisoners to feudal authority but prove that blood is indeed thicker than sakè. Akira Kurosawa’s cinematic adaptation of the famous Japanese Kabuki play is an hour of intense drama infused with Chaplin-esque slapstick: by adding the character of the humorous porter Kurosawa changes the complex ethics of the entire story. Kurosawa’s beautiful B&W cinematography is restrained by budgetary concerns, so he films mostly in medium long shot and intercuts to close up utilizing few (if any) establishing shots or transitions. Though the sets are mundane it’s his style that flavors the narrative: his use of high and low angle photography, or revealing Lord Yoshitsune only from behind until he is beaten, and the casual close-ups of the porter create sublime pathos. I believe this is one of his most gorgeous films and the forest scenes evoke his now legendary RASHOMON, which was still five years away! The story concerns the aftermath of a bloody war, as Yoshitsune and his samurai are attempting to cross his brother Yorimoto’s territory in disguise as itinerant priests…along with one lowly porter. This nameless load-bearer, like Frodo who carries the Ring of Doom towards Orodruin, is the joking, innocent, scared, and physically weak empathetic contact to the audience because he is the Everyman surrounded by mythically fierce warriors and mighty Lord. This comic presence is unaware of those who hired him and he walks dutifully into the trap, tiptoeing towards the sleeping tiger. Through a comic scene of exposition, the self-discovery of his employer’s identity remains unspoken but contorts his expression with this forbidden knowledge. Though he is chased away he scouts the path ahead and continues with the group, rising above his status: he acts more bravely the soldiers who wield their swords and bask in the glory of bloodshed. Kurosawa divides the story into three parts: the trip to the Ataka checkpoint, the dialogue between Benkei (Yoshitsune’s most loyal cohort) and Lord Yorimoto, and the exit from the camp and the final dance. The middle sequence is ripe with tension as the secretive Lord is dresses also as a second porter with a wide hat hiding his face, and there are many moments where he may be recognized. Benkei attempts to fool the adversary by quickly devising a prayer from a blank manuscript, to uphold the illusion that they are monks seeking contributions for a local temple, but Yorimoto’s bodyguard obviously sees through the deception. But is Yorimoto that dumb? He allows them to leave but in one final violent moment, the bodyguard tears away Yoshitsune’s disguise and Benkei strikes the “porter” over and over again for disobedience so their ruse is not discovered: a samurai who strikes his Master makes the greatest sacrifice but it’s the nameless jokester who intervene and stops Benkei’s hand…while the others watch in disbelief. Here, both rise above their own social standing and act honorably: Benkei by saving his master’s life and the grinning fool by heroically staying the warrior’s hand. Finally, the group is delivered a gift of sakè from Yorimoto and we acknowledge the fact that he wasn’t fooled at all, but admired the attempt and let them pass. The tiny man among giants falls into a drunken stupor and is left alone with the Lord’s robe and a meager reward…and he dances drunkenly off the screen in a vain attempt to mimic his hero. (B+)


Lolita said...

Oh, I want to see every Kurosawa movie! I'm in a real Kurosawa mood for the moment, just having watched the magnificent Kagemusha. Check in on my blog if you want - you may find something interesting ;)
I'll add you to my blog list, by the way. Cool blog!

Alex DeLarge said...

Thanks Lolita! I just joined your blog and posted about Kurosawa also:) I'll be reviewing every film in his new box set...yes, all 25...though I already have written about KAGEMUSHA & SEVEN SAMURAI. Glad you enjoy his cinema and highly recommend his early films.