The film is not only based on an incident that happened in the 12th century, but also on the Noh play Ataka, and on the Kabuki play Kanjincho. Initially banned, the film was first released in 1952 and is the fourth film made by Akira Kurosawa. The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail focuses on the exemplification of true feudal values that ruled Japan starting in the Heian period. In order to understand the movie perfectly, one has to know what happened before the events depicted in the picture. Here’s a brief presentation of the story: after winning a bloody Naval battle with the rival Heike clan, the triumphant lord Yoshitsune Minamoto returns to Kyoto in order to take command. However, his jealous and envious brother Shogun Yoritomo orders his men to arrest Yoshitsune and all his comrades. Due to a lucky circumstance, Yoshitsune and six of his loyal samurai retainers are able to escape. In order to be truly safe they need to travel through the country and find shelter in the home of an only friend, Idehira Fukiwara.
The movie starts when a group of monks traverses through a huge forest. Being accompanied by a silly yet truly helpful porter (Kenichi Enomoto), the group rests and decides to figure out a perfect plan. It’s the first time the audience gets acquainted with all the characters, in order to realize that the monks are actually the lord (Hanshirô Iwai) and his samurai companions in disguise. They plan to march to the gate where the keepers await, and trick them into believing that they’re actually a group of friendly monks gathering money to build a large temple in Kyoto. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers are already aware that a group of seven men is traveling through the country in such a disguise. With the help of the porter the men finally arrive and face the enemy, in what seems to be a tranquil, yet strangely intense and suspenseful, battle of nerves. Benkei (Denjirō Ōkōchi), a warrior monk, and Yoshitsune’s most loyal friend, takes the stand and tries to persuade the watchful sentries of their faked mission. After a few moments of danger, just when the whole situation seems to be in shambles, Benkei once again shows his unmistakable intelligence and self-control. He proves that his skills and experience are masterful, leading to a successful ending to this dramatic adventure.
The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail is not Kurosawa’s best, bust still a truly remarkable, detailed, and culturally conscious period drama, where the many ponderous Japanese virtues meet with an ostensibly stagnant atmosphere, all covered up in a package of truly minimalistic aspirations. Though short and not that interesting as many hope it would be, the film gives a fantastic glimpse at the rules that governed Japan in the 12th century, and presents a story, where wisdom and decisiveness are more valuable than bravery and prowess. With a surprisingly hilarious end scene, it also debunks a myth about the archetypical pure samurai warriors, and shows them in a much different, more intimate light.