Two Types of Creative Artists – Artist-Porter (Entertainer) And Artist-Prophet (Truth-Sorcerer)

“They Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail” (written and directed by Kurosawa) is based on the Kabuki play “Kanjincho” which in turn is based on the Noh play “Ataka”. The film was initially banned by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP) due to its portrayal of “feudal values”. It was released after the signing of the Treaty of San-Francisco in 1952.

In 1185, the Heike family fight against the Minamoto family. After a bloody naval battle in the Pacific Ocean, Yoshitsune Minamoto defeats the enemy. But when triumphant Yoshitsune arrived in Kyoto, his brother, the Shogun Yoritomo, orders to arrest his victorious brother Yoshutsune, who then escapes with six loyal samurai lead by Benkei. Near the border, after crossing the forest disguised as monks, the group must pass the border guards barrier. Yoshitsune disguises as a porter, and Benkei is prepared to try to convince the general in command of the guards that they are six monks (plus two porters) traveling to collect donations in order to build a large temple in Kyoto.

“When U.S. Army moved in to occupy Japan, it immediately began crusading against Japanese militarism. Part of this crusade consisted of dismissing the censors and the judicial police. Indeed, the censors had been driven out of their offices in the Ministry of the Interior. Nevertheless, these diehards could not give up their pride and presumptuousness, and they lit into me with an interrogating vengeance. “Do you know that this Tiger’s Tale of yours is a distortion and mockery of one of the great Japanese classic plays?”… The U.S. Army General Headquarters (G.H.Q.) banned the release of Tiger’s Tale because out of all the reports on films in production in the Japanese industry, the [Japanese] censors failed to submit it to the G.H.Q. As a result, it became an “illegal” unreported film, and G.H.Q. shelved it. Three years later, however, the head of the film division for the G.H.Q. saw Tiger’s Tail and lifted the ban.”
Akira KurosawaAkira Kurosawa, “Something Like an Autobiography”, Vintage Books, 1982, p. 142 – 144

Kurosawa started shooting the film right before the Japanese defeat. When the emperor officially announced Japan’s surrender to the Allies on the radio, production of the film momentarily halted. But few days later, the shooting resumed…, and the film was completed as originally planned. Even though the wartime censorship ended with the Japanese defeat, the film had to pass the Occupational government’s censorship instituted in September 1945. One of the first task for the Occupation censors was to obtain the list of films already in production at that time. The Japanese censors willfully neglected to report “The Men…” in order to get even with Kurosawa, who had humiliated one of them about his ignorance of Japanese cultural tradition. Because the film was not on the list submitted by Japanese censors, Kurosawa’s film was dimmed illegal, and Toho was not allowed to show the film in that year. Three years later, the Occupation censors lifted the ban on the film, but it was only in 1952, after the reestablishment of Japan’s sovereignty and the commercial release of Kurosawa’s twelfth film, “The Idiot”, “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail” was shown to the Japanese public for the first time.
Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, “Kurosawa (Film Studies and Japanese Cinema)”, Duke University Press, 2000, p. 94 – 95

The film is ostensibly a straight version of the historical anecdote but with one change… Kurosawa added one character, an extra porter, and gave the part to the comedian Kenichi Enomoto – a bit like adding Jerry Lewis to the cast of Hamlet.
Donald Richie, “The films of Akira Kurosawa”, University of California, 1996, p. 31

The general idea, according to Kurosawa, was to make an encounter between Benkei and Togashi the center of the film but to have the comedian Enomoto’s role (the porter) go all the way through.
Donald Richie, Ibid, p. 33

When we lived in small nomadic groups

Bells on traveling clouds
Over the mountain pass
Bells on traveling clothes
Over the mountain pass
Wringing out the dew
From the sleeves

When we started to live in a world with denser population and higher animosity

Moments of contemplation before reaching the barrier station on the border

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Benkei confronts the issues based on interests which contradict one another: his goals as a leader of his group and goals of his opponents – the border guards who in this very moments were preparing to stop and check whoever will try to cross the border. But, as we see in this shot, Benkei doesn’t look straight ahead – to an encounter with the border guards – he looks to the side, to his soul, to his unconscious intentionality which we, viewers, will be able to grasp only later.

Stepping to the barrier camp

The Men 11
Benkei (Denjiro Okoshi, seen from the back, as if, by the suggestion of the composition of the shot, acting on the behalf of the audience) meets Togashi (Susumu Fujita, in the center, as if, confronting the audience), the commander of the barrier guards

Togashi’s innocent look hides his sophisticated and controversial personality rooted in meditational experiences. The person behind him, the general’s envoy, symbolizes in the film a typical military man – robotic obedience without any human complications (he is an “ideal soldier”, generals’ dream made alive)

The confrontation

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Fight between three minds – Benkei’s, Togashi’s and the envoy’s (of the general), at the border station

Benkei’s magical trick or his creative virtuosity? – Benkei is taking out the non-existing declaration/prospect, which the monks collecting donations always have

When trickery becomes art, when art becomes humanistic aesthetics

Instead of the declaration/prospect Benkei is reading from a blank sheet of paper, magnificently improvising a non-existing text. What made him a talented writer and incredible performer? Is it only the desire to save his master who has been betrayed and unjustly mistreated?

For Kurosawa Benkei’s masterful deception becomes a metaphor of the only chance to avoid military clash. But much more important than the question of properness/ improperness of artistic falsification of reality is the issue of immense creative concentration mobilized to find a solution to avoid the carnage. Here is Kurosawa’s reaction on the war between Japan and U.S.A

Confrontation or collaboration?

Aesthetics becomes a substratum of creative effort at peacemaking versus apocalyptic reality of war

Benkei is beating his Lord – Benkei is saving his Lord. Benkei is saving the both sides involved in conflict – his own group and the border guards, from meaningless bloodshed. But is Benkei the only savior?

Creative resolution

Togashi seen from the back makes an astonishingly unconventional decision. The composition of the shot suggests that his decision is made in viewers’ name. By pretending that he believes Benkei’s story, Togashi becomes a co-savior of people involved in this conflict.

Benkei as a genius and Benkei as an ordinary man

When Benkei asks for his Lord‘s forgiveness for publicly beating him (as if Lord Yoshitsune is just a porter), he is a man of his time when worship of one’s master was a custom. But in his actions we discern a new sensibility which becomes more and more necessary the more destructive technology of war becomes.

Two individuals from the opposite military camps who through a secret and not formulated creative pact were able to stop the deadly clash

After Benkei’s group was allowed to cross the border pass Benkei receives gifts from Togashi as a sign of his spiritual appreciation. Togashi was able to admire Benkei’s incredible creative effort to avoid destructive physical confrontation. Kurosawa’s point here, it seems, is that in Hiroshima/Nagasaki war between Japan and US it was no one person like Benkei and no one like Togashi.

After danger is averted, then is
kindness savored, sympathy gratefully accepted, and gratefully received,
though one had not expected it
in regions wild as these,
the cup of friendship, the taste of
kindness, the very grail of humanity.

Four songs in “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail”, symbolizing four modalities of human existence throughout history

Song #1
Bells on traveling clouds
Over the mountain pass
Bells on traveling clothes
Over the mountain pass

Wringing out dew
From the sleeves

Song #2 (Lord Yoshitsune dresses as a porter in order to pass the border incognito)

The startling beauty
of a crimson blossom
is seen even in the garden
laden with flowers.
Yet lesser blooms are overlooked,
and weeds unnoticed.

And so, he removed
his brocade coat
putting on the porter’s
coarser weave.

He hid his face beneath
a hat of common cloth
and leaned his burdened weight
upon the porter’s staff.

The sight of bending lord,
who never carried a load before
is painful to look upon
and we must sigh with grief.

Song #3 (The tensest, the most dangerous moment at the barrier)

Leave as swiftly as you are able
but not so swiftly that you would
appear less innocent,

rather as though walking
from the viper’s den,
rather as though you tread
upon the tail of the tiger.

Song #4 (Apotheosis of the film’s meaning; Benkei and Togashi were able to avert bloodshed – the proud pantomime of machoistic self-assertion)

After danger is averted, then
kindness savored, sympathy gratefully accepted,
and gratefully received,
though one had not expected it
in regions wild as these,
the cup of friendship, the taste of
kindness, the very grail of humanity.


Benkei is the leader of lord Yoshitsune’s bodyguards, and his task is to provide for his Lord a safe passage through a heavily guarded border. The task of Togashi, the commander of the barrier camp is to stop by any price Yoshitsune and his retainers from crossing the border. According to Togashi’s information, Yoshitsune and his men may try to pass the barrier disguising themselves as monks. And now he sees before him and his soldiers exactly – the monks who through their leader Benkei claiming that they need to pass the border because they are on their way to collect money for building in their region a new Buddhist Temple.

The two sides are ready for everything to prevent the enemy from achieving its goals. That is, from the first impression – a conflict which Kurosawa wants us to experience in this film. Benkei (Denjiro Okochi) vs. Togashi (Susumu Fujita), Togashi (Susumu Fijita) vs. Benkei (Denjiro Okochi), the good versus the bad and/or the ugly. Of course, unfortunately for some and fortunately for other viewers, in Kurosawa the situation of the imminent clash between sides is more complicated. Somewhere around 1961 Kurosawa said that for a long time he wanted to make a film based on the idea that when two rivaling sides are equally bad it is impossible to choose between evils. “I have always,” – specified Kurosawa, “wanted to stop these senseless battles of bad against bad, but we’re all more or less weak – I’ve never been able to.“ (Donald Richie, “The Films of Akira Kurosawa”, University of California Press, p. 147)

“The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail” was made much before the early 60s when Kurosawa created his “Yojimbo” and already worked on the script for his “Sanjuro”, but, as we see, he already was thinking with full focus on the problem of two sides being equally bad, but he thought about it in a different way. If two sides facing deadly clash are equally bad – the most widespread situation, can they be also equally good, if not “almost” or “fully” or “highly”, but at least – potentially? Of course, to think about such possibility is idealistic utopianism, a child-like innocence, but in a certain, most desperate moments of history to play the morally utopian card can be the only chance for a way out – to avoid “total” destruction and annihilation. And Kurosawa in 1945, when he made “They Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail” (it was his fourth film), was in one of such moments, as, it seems, we are today in the 21st century. Benkei vs. Togashi (who will beat whom?) motif is able to attract viewers by promising action, but in “The Men Who…” it is transformed in especially unusual, unexpected way. Yes, it is the film about confrontation – Benkei and Togashi challenge one another to go as far as possible in their duel of wills and minds, but the meaning of their confrontation is absolutely different from what was expected when the film was finally allowed for screening or can be expected today.

To make an exceptional meaning of Benkei-Togashi confrontation graspable to the viewers Kurosawa had to situate their conflict within historical context. To achieve it Kurosawa uses songs as an extradiegetic tool to characterize human psychology in different epochs. For example, the first song depicts life of the ancient nomadic tribes, the second characterizes the cult of authoritarian leader as object of worshipful admiration, which still has its grip on humankind. The third song emphasizes an atmosphere of animosity when nations and groups live in a permanent hate – the condition still belonging to modern life. The last, fourth song describes the human feelings which today are, rather unusual and belong to the future. This fourth song envelops the shocking culmination of the film, when Benkei, contrary to expectations, is getting the right for his men and their lord Yoshitsune (disguised as a commoner) to pass through the border.

How something like this was possible in spite of suspicious and belligerent time when the action of the film took place (12th century) and equally the time of its production (1945)? The reason is not only extraordinary cultural competence, artistic talent and courage of Benkei but the intensity of his desire to avoid fight/war, the reason for which cannot be just his drive to save Yoshitsune. Here we come to the very semantic nucleus of Kurosawa’s film. While Benkei pretends that he is telling the truth, Togashi pretends that he believes him, while he doesn’t have an existential reason to violate orders and risk punishment for violating the order of his superiors. So, why does Benkei go so far in mobilizing his versatile personality and why does Togashi secretly collaborate with Benkei?

Here, it seems, we are in the presence of Kurosawa’s subjective projection into both characters, a projection which, it seems, inspired in him by the fact of WWII, the most horrendous and monstrous war in the history of humanity. Kurosawa depicts the collaboration without pact (without naming it to one another) of the two individuals from two opposite military camps who by their rare ability to fight not with one another according to the logic of hate and war, but against the climate of obedience and cult of victory and murder, are able to take responsibility to act against the code of decent behavior (to lie and to lie again – Benkei) and to disobey the order of the superiors – (Togashi) and stop fight/war, find a way out of carnage, mayhem, and destruction.

Benkei/Togashi’s mutual cognitive pantomime, their semantic duel/duet where lie and truth collaborate for the sake of defeating war is the incredible achievement of Kurosawa’s early cinematography. Like Benkei’s glorious deed of overcoming machoistic bravado to avoid military clash would be totally unreal without Togashi’s secret help, like their mutual heroism could never be understood by the audience without the comic backdrop of the porter’s performances (Kenichi Enomoto), so the meaning of Benkei/Togashi mysterious alliance could be lost without Kurosawa’ translation/interpretation of Japanese cultural legacy into the reality of intellectual culture of the modern history of the world.

Kurosawa is an alternative artist who is opposing to the entertaining the public, the function personified by the foolish, but not stupid porter. Kurosawa’s task is not to entertain but to help people to become conscious of reality’s potentials to liberate life from behavioral vicious circles.

While watching the film we are transferred from Japan’s past to the present of today’s international/global problems (made worse by the existence of high-tech weapon systems). Kurosawa addresses the audience not with warnings about the danger of nuclear holocaust but with example of possibility of overcoming this danger. Artist’s unexpected participation in today’s international politics is, it seems, the ultimate aesthetic intention of Kurosawa’s film.