The effects of Kabuki on Akira Kurosawa’s Auteurism, Part 2

Japanese Cinema and Akira Kurosawa

by Alireza Vahdani Volume 14, Issue 10 / October 2010 22 minutes (5379 words)

The roots and mental set of Japanese Cinema

Japan, an epitome of Far East countries, has been treated by the rest of the world like a Greek myth for centuries. The magnitude of socio-cultural differences between Japan and other countries is the raison d’être of this mythical perspective. The geographical position of the country is the cardinal reason behind the Japanese culture and traditions, uniqueness and novelty. The Sea of Japan acts as a shield between country and outside world. The chance of cultural communication and, as a result, exchange prior to Meji restoration [1] (second half of the 19th century) was minimal. Schirokauer (1993, p.7) believes: “Japan was too far away to be dominated or influenced by international powers. Foreign ideas, institutions, and techniques could be adapted to Japanese needs without military or political interference from abroad.” It can be conceived that Japanese society stays loyal to its status quo until it seeks change. This trait puts the people in control of their values and mentality. [2]

It might be argued from the above statement that Japan does not benefit from an original culture; that Japan’s culture is nothing but a woven tapestry of other Eastern traditions. This argument is shallow and discriminating. In various ages of history cultural exchange plays a significant role in creating and developing humans’ mentality. However, the cultural elements such as language, literature, art and religion are the products of this creation and not the creators. Humans are the creators. They have the mind power to shape their schemata to a desired result (their mentality). Notwithstanding, Japanese culture and mentality is influenced by others; it follows its own path, in a way that is novel for the majority of world inhabitants. In different epochs of history, Japanese subjects have presented their culture in various forms of art, philosophy, literature and theatre. In modern times, cinema in Japan, like other countries, has been a façade that visualised the interior parts of the culture e.g. social values, identity and mental set.

The question which arises from the above claims is this: what is the base of identity in Japanese cinema? To respond ‘a Japanese film is a text with a Japanese story or made by domestic cast and crew’ is unsubstantial and has no better result than leaving the subject unstudied. The reason for this notion is that films, like any other texts, are mediums for sending messages that have been created by humans. Many elements are required to form the mind of an individual and nationality is only one of them.

Noël Burch [3] in Yoshimoto (2000, p.19) takes this approach towards the subject of identity in Japanese cinema: “Western cinema is representational, whereas Japanese cinema, following the traditions of Kabuki and Bunraku, is best characterised as presentational.” This remark was faced with many disapproving exclamations. As Yoshimoto (2000, p.21) puts it: “Burch uses Japanese cinema as a rod with which to beat the back of western bourgeois transparent cinema.” It seems that Burch unconsciously tries to define the core identity of cinema in Japan, based on a contrast with Western cinema. Yoshimoto criticises Burch’s reading further by suggesting, “The norm for Burch is not the dominant representational practice in Japan but the abstract model called ‘international mode of representation’ exemplified by classical Hollywood cinema” (2000, p.21). It can be argued based on Yoshimoto’s idea that Burch’s fault is that he fails to understand the differences between Japanese and Western (in his case American) views on representation. He accepts Hollywood conventions in filmmaking as the only available truth and gives it an omnipresent characteristic. Burch wants to see the styles and structures of Hollywood films everywhere and, when he encounters a different perspective based on similar philosophy, fails to grasp it. Kabuki and bunraku are two styles of theatre in Japan. In many countries, audiences accept theatre as a high form of drama, a kind of exaggerated presentation, much like the long history of pantomime in Britain. However, Japanese people look at the high level of drama from a different angle. According to Richie (2005), in Japan, people treat a dramatised story or event as a representation of society. Although Japanese filmmakers have a different outlook on the concept of representation, it does not change its structure. Western and Japanese cinema stand at different ends of the same spectrum regarding representation.

The film industry in Japan, in tandem with rest of the world, started to function from the early days of the 20th century. However it is largely due to Akira Kurosawa that the outside world’s awareness of Japan’s cinematic discipline took off in the 1950s. This cinematic phenomenon is because of ??Rashomon??’s (1950) success in winning the Venice Film Festival’s Grand Prix in 1951. Yoshimoto (2000, p.1) writes: “Without the international success of Kurosawa, it would have taken much longer for Japanese cinema to achieve the status of a recognizable national cinema for the non-Japanese audience and academics.” It can be thus inferred that Yoshimoto presents Akira Kurosawa as an iconic figure in Japanese cinema. Kurosawa did not enter the industry whimsically and was not the first person in his family involved in it. Kurosawa, in his autobiography (1983, p.6) writes how his father, a strict military academy teacher, would take the whole family to watch all the available films in the cinema (in stark contrast to social norms of Japanese society at the time) and how this frequent pilgrimage to the cinema gradually shaped the mentality of young Akira and shaped his passion for filmmaking. Furthermore, he says “my older brother (Heigo) was a professional silent film narrator,” [4] and it was this brother who encouraged young Akira to join Japan’s film industry.

The influence of Japanese theatre (particularly noh and kabuki) in the cinematic structure of Kurosawa’s period dramas, Jidaigeki, [5] (a very important section of his work) is conspicuous. It also should be mentioned that kabuki and its traditions have a great influence on the Japanese studio system. The next part of this essay will discuss the evolution of kabuki, and Akira Kurosawa’s feelings towards kabuki.

Kabuki’s evolution and Kurosawa’s attitude towards its conventions

This section aims to present a short historical overview of kabuki’s evolution and its role in Japanese cinema. It has been argued that Japan has excluded its theatre from Western performing traditions by creating domestic conventions and styles. Kabuki, as one of the oldest styles of Japanese theatre, is a paramount area for consideration. There are two main reasons for this:

1.Ortolani’s (1990a) research suggests that this mood of performance has been in existence since the middle ages. Today, centuries after kabuki’s early productions, many of Tokyo’s theatrical venues are still dominated by kabuki plays. It can be argued that due to kabuki’s large influential effects on Japanese culture and society, it is an arduous task to invent an innovative replacement for this theatre style. Its plays have the same essential role as Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets have in Western societies.

2. Kabuki participates significantly in promoting Japanese cinema. Yoshimoto takes a serious and absolute approach towards the subject; he (2000, p.100) writes: “The question of whether Kabuki influenced the development of Japanese cinema is to a certain extent not even an issue because so many of the former’s conventions were adopted by the latter.” The next example can contribute to the reader’s understanding of this notion more profoundly. As stated earlier, a major part of Kurosawa’s works consist of period drama films which are influenced by kabuki plays and conventions. Furthermore, it can be claimed that on a more expanded scale, this genre (period drama, or Jidaigeki) is one of the dominating forces in the country’s cinema. This school of filmmaking descended from kabuki texts. These plays, suggests Ortolani, consist of Jidaimono and Sewwanon. The latter contains domestic melodramas and the former is a reflection of actual historical incidents. It should be understood that Jidaigeki is an evolved version of Jidaimono in a cinematic context.

I shall now address these issues in more detail. Kabuki, prior to being a literary or performance movement, was a tool of social criticism in the Tokugawa [6] era (1603-1868). The denotative approach towards the concept is based on the literary meaning of the verb ‘kabuku,’ which is ‘to slant’ or ‘to tilt.’ In addition, according to Ortolani (1990a), during the Tokugawa period the verb transformed to slang and functioned as a metaphor for anti-establishment activities and behaviours. It was used to brand the people who, in contrast with social conventions of the time, had ‘shocking hairdos or enormous swords.’ In the lexicon of the common language these people were ‘kabukimono’. The crucial point is that kabukimono were not solely called people with extravagant lifestyles or individuals with a whim for being agitators. Indeed, they, like the free love movement of 1960s and 1970s in the West, aspired to send a message to the authorities. There is no doubt about the irritation that Tokugawa officials felt because of them. Nevertheless, as Ortolani puts it, ordinary people such as farmers and those of lower income would in general look upon a kabukimono as a hero and saviour. As Christians sing songs of the glory of their saviour Jesus, in the Tokugawa era people would sing to celebrate the compassed deeds of kabukimono. These songs had been called, in short, ‘kabuki’.

Kabuki songs expanded via verbal communication in tandem with other folk legacies. There is no exact and precise information on how or when these songs found their way to the manuscripts and consequently the stage. Ortolani (1990a, p.158) suggests that based on a legendary idea, rather than a factual one, ‘a ronin (master-less samurai), Nagoya Sanza [7] who was the lover of the famous dancer, Okuni, is the figure responsible for organising kabuki.

The response of the government at the time towards the new theatre style was unfavourable. Schirokauer (1993) depicts a pyramid for stimulating the social classes in the Tokugawa era. The order of the classes is based on power elements. They are: warrior-administrator (samurai), merchants (shonin), artisans (kojin) and peasants (nomin). Two groups of people are outside of the pyramid. The first group consists of the Emperor and his court members, who were purported to be divine creatures and therefore could not mingle with the common man in the same social order (they were above anyone else). The second group are the lowest of the low, the outcast of the society, the destroyer of the social values and ethical norms, prostitutes and, below them, kabuki actors. It can be concluded that this derogatory outlook from authorities upon kabuki plays and its performers is in contrast with ordinary people’s respect for this style of theatre. The result of this dichotomy was that people became stubborn and prejudiced towards the government and, by attending kabuki performances, kept it alive over time.

Ortolani (1990a) and Yoshimoto (2000) report on minor changes that happened to kabuki over time. However, it was due to the changes in the Meiji period (1868-1912) that the ethos of kabuki was revolutionised. The new nature of the plays was now concerned with actual historical incidents, rather than exaggerated and fanciful adventures and encounters of this or that kabukimono. [8] But, why did Meiji authorities, in an extreme diversion from their predecessors, try to make reforms to kabuki rather than eliminate it? The main reason is that the Meiji government’s goal was to create a modern, advanced Japan in all aspects (social, economical, educational, and cultural), with the goal of being able to play a more important role in the politics of the time. In a cultural confrontation with the Western world –because of its pure Japanese characteristics– kabuki was a proper tool for representing Japan’s culture and history. [9] Notwithstanding, Yoshimoto argues that the plays were ‘too Japanese’ and too complicated for a Western audience to fathom. Thus the change of the plays’ nature would bring a dual benefit for Meiji authorities. First, kabuki presented Japanese values to Western audiences, and secondly it would give glimpses of Japan’s history and its main figures to the West.

This innovative function of kabuki can be considered as a subtle and sophisticated propaganda; nevertheless, the role of kabuki is defiantly propagandist in pre-WWII years. The main reason was that for the historical elements, which now dominated the plays, kabuki was no more a representation of ordinary people’s lives, but was a platform for preaching feudal doctrine (Yoshimoto, 2000).

It was due to this policy that Akira Kurosawa’s proposed script based on the famous kabuki play Kanjincho was given consent by the members of the censor board. The perplexing issue is that Kurosawa is known for his dislike of kabuki plays. He says in Yoshimoto (2000, p.111), “I do not like kabuki for its lack of reality”; furthermore, he calls kabuki “a theatre of artificiality and unnecessary establishment.” This claim is a matter of controversy; in other words, in tandem with many other Japanese directors, Kurosawa follows the traditions of kabuki in filmmaking, or at least demonstrates his devotion and loyalty to the notion that Japan’s cinema industry is heavily influenced by this type of performance. It can be reasoned that there is a paradox in the above argument: i.e. Kurosawa uses kabuki conventions whilst holding them in low regard. Let us discuss this matter in depth.

Kurosawa (1975, p.3) writes: “Noh is a truly unique art form that exists nowhere else in the world. I think the kabuki, which imitates it, is a sterile flower.” The manner in which this statement is made indicates Kurosawa’s biased attitude towards kabuki. As I wrote previously, Ortolani considers kabuki as an art mode that evolved from noh. However, Kurosawa denies this evolution by arguing that kabuki is purely derivative of noh, not an evolution of it, and that noh is a permanent, ossified and unchangeable concept.

The next issue is that although this statement is subjective (“I think,” 1975), Kurosawa nonetheless tries to represent it in an objective manner by espousing the imagery of a “sterile flower.” According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘sterile’ does not solely mean fruitless, but also “without any imagination.” Two apparent issues exist in the praxis of this example. First, if kabuki was “fruitless” it would not have survived for centuries, while remaining a medium of generating polemics. This implies that it would not have been a reflection on social and historical issues of different epochs while keeping its relevancy. On the other hand, if it was lacking imagination, how could it still remain in the spotlight for the contemporary Japanese audience? Furthermore one would have to think that films, as artistic devices for emancipating human emotions and visualising them, would not be influenced by “unimaginative” concepts.

Yoshimoto (2000, p.112) tries to show a more positive understanding of Kurosawa’s statement: “For Kurosawa, kabuki is a theatre of artificiality and unnecessary embellishment, whereas noh’s simplicity and naturalness lead us to the true Japanese spirit.” It may be easy to agree with the first part of this interpretation, since it reflects objectively on the subjective aspect of Kurosawa’s ideas. However, in the second part Yoshimoto falls into the same trap as Kurosawa. That is, that the so-called ‘simplicity’ of noh is due to the lack of evolution. It is in the form of kabuki that noh becomes mature and discovers the ability to approach serious and complex subjects such as society and politics. In contrast with his biased manner, Kurosawa made a film based on Kanjincho entitled The men who step on the tiger’s tai. The main point is that Kurosawa, being an auteur, did not confine himself to the kabuki structure of the play. By making a variety of changes, he brings the play to his cinematic vision. The next section will explore the ways in which Kurosawa intertwines his personal conventions of filmmaking with the traditions of kabuki theatre.

The revolution of kabuki’s conventions in Kurosawa’s auteurism

The pervious section concluded with the idea that, while Kurosawa may have disliked kabuki, he used its conventions. The reason for this is that Kurosawa was a studio director, and kabuki conventions were an influence on the studios’ filmmaking style. However, Kurosawa uses these conventions whilst changing them to fit his personal vision. In the case of The men who step on the tiger’s tail Kurosawa changes kabuki conventions by adding new characters (most notably a porter) to the film and tailoring the film’s message to its own era.

Based on the Kabuki Handbook by Aubrey and Giovanna Halford (1956), the original play, Kanijincho, [10] and subsequently the film plot can be summarised as follows: Minamoto Yoshitsune, a 16th century war lord in exile, is accompanied by his faithful warrior priest Benkei and a handful of loyal servants as he flees from the wrathful jealousy of his elder brother. He tries to escape to the north of Japan; however, there is an obstacle, a barrier between him and north. In order to pass through, Benkei must convince the Togashi, the clan of the prefecture, that he is a priest and Yoshitsune is his porter.

The major change in the film is the addition of a noisy and cheeky peasant who is nameless and known by his vocation, ‘porter.’ Kenichi Enomoto, known as Enoken, a well-known Japanese comedian at the time, embodies the porter’s role. Richie (1984, p.31) describes Enoken in the film as follows: “Adding him to the plot is like adding Jerry Lewis to the cast of Hamlet.” The intriguing point is that Kurosawa not only adds a comedian to the cast of one the most profoundly daunting kabuki plays, but represents him as one of the two leading characters of the film [the other one is Benkei (Denjiro Okochi)]. Richie (1984, p.34) believes Kurosawa does so because “His stock character [Enoken] was that of an ordinary neurotic Japanese who over-reacts to everything – including the war. He was a parody of the anxious ordinary man. This is precisely his role in this film”. I also like to note that Enoken embodies a common Japanese of 1945 who, despite not fighting on the front, is suffering back at home. That is why his character is nameless, inasmuch as it can be any ordinary person trapped by the deadly grasp of the Second World War.

The exaggerated facial expressions of the porter are a reflection of an atypical scenario; that is, fighting and murdering. One disagrees with the idea of ‘over-reacting’. The so called ‘over-reacting’ can be seen as a representation of the same distorted minds found in German expressionist cinema. Enoken, like veteran German actors of the 1920s (e.g. Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Max Schreck and Conrad Veidt), demonstrates the feelings of ordinary people after losing the war. Let us look closely at the scene in which Benkei is reading religious verses from the empty scroll in order to fool the guards. The porter is standing behind him viewing the empty pages and wondering what Benkei is reading. Enoken, through constantly changing facial expressions, illustrates his various personal feelings such as anxiety, astonishment, fear and relief. One might criticise the way the porter represents his mental situation as being childish and not suitable for the occasion. As previously noted, Kurosawa chose Enoken precisely to show the foolishness of war.

Ortaloni (1990a) believes that based on kabuki’s conventions, peasants are agents of comedy. Thus, it can be said that adding Enoken to the film is not a radical change, and in fact Kurosawa does not change kabuki’s traditions, but follows them. For example, it is true that the porter’s role is performed by a comedian, but it does not necessarily mean that the character is comical. In fact, by including a porter in the film, Kurosawa manipulates a convention of kabuki (peasants as agents of comedy). This means that in Kurosawa’s version, a peasant not only epitomises ordinary people and their fear, but he is in fact an agent of drama. By drama, I mean that instead of making fun of the incidents, the porter functions as a witness who observes the film’s incidents as they happen whilst trying to be part of them.

Kabuki, like its predecessor noh, has a linear three-part structure; McDonald (1994, p.173) describes the parts as: ‘jo-ha-kyu’ or introduction, conflict, and resolution. In the introduction of the film, the porter has no idea that he is following a group of political refuges. He believes that he is helping a group of priests in exchange for money. He tries very hard to mingle with Benkei or others, but he fails to do so. He does not have any success in communication for two main reasons:

1. The porter is not one of them. He is a peasant and the fake priests are in fact a war-lord and his retainers. Even the fact that Yoshitsune and his men are on the run do not cause them to look kindly at the porter.

2. The porter has an optimistic perspective on what is going on; like ordinary Japanese at the end of WWII, who still hope for a better future. On the other hand, Yoshitsune and his retainers are cinematic examples of Japan’s emperor and his officials. Their future is vague and uncertain. The porter’s laughs and positive outlook about what is going on have no place in Yoshitsune’s mentality at all.

In the conflict section of the film, when the refugees are at the enemy’s border (the last stop before freedom) the porter and the fake priests join hands to help Yoshitsune escape. When an enemy sergeant (Shoji Kiyokawa) interferes with Yoshitsune’s escape, Benkei, in order to save his lord and master, beats Yoshitsune, who is now (thanks to porter’s advice) disguised as a peasant. The porter, knowing the true identity of the master, stands as a human shield between him and Benkei’s stick. He not only saves Yoshitsune from the beating, but he also saves a fellow peasant (Yoshitsune in disguise).

The act of beating one’s master creates a stage for argument due to its contradiction with the samurai code. Keiko McDonald (1994) suggests that according to bushido, the samurai code, beating one’s master is one of the greatest disgraces that a warrior can commit. However, Benkei has no other choice but to break the ancient code, and compromises his pride to save the master’s life. McDonald argues that this incident creates a psychological challenge for the samurai. He (1994, p.174) writes: “The act of beating the master is an interesting case of conflict of duty (giri) at two levels. A higher sense of giri, Benkei’s determination to save the lord’s life overrides another sense of giri, obedience to the feudal decorum expected of the retainer.” The very idea of conflicted emotions is the reason that attracts Kurosawa’s attention towards the story. As I noted earlier, the mentality of humans and the hidden motives of their actions are attractive elements for Kurosawa. Furthermore, his interest in the subject stands as one of his auteur epithets in almost of all his films e.g. Ikiru (1952), Yojimbo (1961) and Red Beard (1965).

In the resolution of the film, Togashi (the chief of the area), overwhelmed by Benkei’s action, sends them a gift –barrels of sake. The porter begins to drink like everyone else. The next morning when he wakes up, he finds himself alone and abandoned by the others. He has Yoshitsune’s peasant dress on his shoulders (the war lord is free now and does not require the peasant dress) and a bag of money. After all the troubles, he is rewarded solely by money. This means no matter how fatefully the porter helps the fugitives, he cannot be one of them. It is evident that the porter’s role is not one of comedy at all; in all three stages of the film he portrays something more than the comedic elements that Ortaloni writes about. Enoken shows the separate world of ordinary people and officials. He also indicates optimism for the future and how an ordinary man who survives the war can look ahead to the future.

Kurosawa, being an auteur, cannot neglect the political and social dynamics of the time and their influence on his style. Japan, as the defeated side of the war, was about to go through many changes that would shake the very foundation of the country’s political stature. The aforementioned role of the Emperor was a divine one; however, due to the country’s political rebirth after the occupation in 1945, the Emperor’s divinity was no longer the case. Yoshitsune symbolises Japan’s Emperor of the time (Hirohito), whereas Benkei metaphorically refers to a royal retainer who fights to the end against the enemy. The beating scene in the film means in order to save their Emperor, the Japanese have no other option than to change the status quo and renounce his divinity. Throughout the entire film, the audience do not see Yoshitsune’s face; the reason is that he is a divine creature and cannot be seen or understood by the mortal shortcomings of the populace. However, at the end of film when he has escaped and accepts Benkei’s apology for beating him, he unveils his face and sits on the ground at the same level with Benkei and his other retainers.

The changes that Kurosawa makes in the film (I only referred to adding Enoken) revolutionise the message of the original play. While Kanijincho limits itself to an historical incident which happened 400 years ago, Kurosawa’s personal style (auteurism) updates the message of the film to convey the notion that although the Emperor is no longer a divinity, at least he is safe and remains in the consciousness of the Japanese public. An old Persian proverb says “a true artist is a mirror of his time.” If an artist wants to expand the effectiveness of his art, no matter its nature, he needs to reflect on the socio-political phenomena that occur around him. Kurosawa is a pilgrim on the same road; although he dislikes kabuki, he is aware that this style of performance with its Japanese roots is a strong inspiration for making films. However, to impart the basic principles of the play, he propagates change to harmonise the play’s philosophy with that of his own – that is his auteurism.


As previously mentioned, Yoshimoto (2000) says that kabuki, due to its plays and conventions, is one of the most dominating forces in the national cinema of Japan. This means domestic directors, such as Kurosawa, no matter how critical their perspectives towards kabuki, cannot ignore the effects of the plays in their cinematic texts. This claim does not try to constrain the mind of the readers to the idea that Kurosawa is individualised from the main body of Japanese cinema. As noted earlier, Kurosawa himself admits that he evolved from a mere assistant director to a writer and director in Toho studios; moreover, as a studio director, he cannot ignore the studio’s filmmaking traditions which are heavily influenced by kabuki conventions. This explanation should not be considered definite; it could be argued that if this research claims Kurosawa is an auteur, then how can the contrast between auteurism and Kurosawa’s fidelity to studio conventions be explained? Moreover, if he follows the conventions that are inspired from a specific theatre’s style, how can he dislike the very same theatre discipline?

In order to answer these critical but pivotal questions, it should be said that all the above ideas are linked; i.e. Kurosawa, indeed, is a studio director and follows its norms; nonetheless, he has his own notions and ideas. Therefore, he is not a studio disciple who follows its syntax blow by blow, but he compromises, by mingling his personal style and conventions with those springing from studios that are rooted in kabuki. Thus, he deviates from a metteur en scène and approaches the level of an auteur. On a technical level he does so by choosing a subjective manner towards kabuki, and using its conventions while they are tailored to fit his personal taste; that is, he changes the traditions and makes them comme il fautwith his mentality. The change that he makes includes adding characters with distinguished personalities. The presence of characters such as the porter is an element of Kurosawa’s auteurism, which shows itself repeatedly in most of his cinematic texts. This research has the ability to stand as a guideline to others who want to study these added characters (which sometimes are nameless or with no clear background, like the porter), and their evolving process in Kurosawa’s works over time. It should also be said that there is nothing faulty about Kurosawa’s subjective approach towards kabuki, because the whole essence of auteurism depends on how some directors individualise their tastes and ways from others.

Part 1


1 Meiji, which means ‘enlightened rule’ refers to the period of October 1868 to July 1912 when Komei was the emperor of Japan. The country did undergo many social and cultural epiphanies during this time (1993).

2 “The unsophisticated myth of Japan’s cultural existence reaches back to a divine brother and sister, Izanagi and Izanami, who descended to earth and formed the

3 According to Yoshimoto (2000, p.1) Burch is the person who reinvigorated Japanese cinema from an academic perspective.

4 The narrators (benshi) existed due to high cost of subtitles for a silent film. They not only recounted the plot of the films, but they enhanced the emotional content by performing the voices and sound effects and providing evocative descriptions of the events and images on the screen ‘much like the narrators of the bunraku puppet theatre’ (1983, p.75).

5 Richie (2005, p.300) defines the lexicon as a “generic term for historical films”.

6 Tokugawa or Edo period is the pre-Meiji era in Japanese history. The country was governed between the 17th and 19th centuries by Shoguns from the Tokugawa family. 6

7 In historical accounts he was once a samurai who served the Christian daimyo, Gamo Ujisato (1990, p.186). 7

8 Yoshimoto (2000, p.104) writes “around April, 1872, Tokyo prefectural government asked the theatre owners and kabuki writers to stop showing obscene and cruel scenes and to replace fiction and fantasy with historical facts”.

9 Yoshimoto (2000, p.106) believes the importance of these changes show it in a way to create an authentic image of Japan “to respond to Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta. The Mikado premiered in London on March 14th, 1885, and because of its popularity continued to be performed until January 19th, 1887 […] the Mikado is a bricolage of Europeans fantasies about the exotic and barbaric land called Japan”.

10 The play is an evolved kabuki version of the noh play Ataka. McDonald (1994, p.172) writes “Ataka was not written at the height of the art’s development under Zeami, but during the civil wars of the fifteenth century. The author, Nobumitsu Kanze (1435-1518) had inherited the mantle of his father, On’ami. Like his father’s, this playwright moved counter to Zeami’s restrained, orthodox noh style, adopting a manner that can only be called flamboyant. He also responded to contemporary events (what Kurosawa did with the film adaption from the kabuki version) in those troubled times, abounding the dynamics of romance in favour of those of conflict”. The reason that Kurosawa changed the title of the film was that the new title in fact refers to the dangerous situation that Yoshitsune and his men are in; as dangerous as stepping on a tiger’s tail.


Halford, Aubrey, and Giovanna Halford (1956) The Kabuki Handbook, Tokyo: Tuttle Company.

Kurosawa, Akira (1975) Some Random Notes on Filmmaking, Tokyo: Toho Company Ltd.

Kurosawa, Akira (1983) Something like an Autobiography, New York: Vintage Books.

McDonald, Keiko I. (1994) Japanese Classical Theatre, London: Associated University Press.

Ortolani, Benito (1990) The Japanese Theatre: From Shamanistic Ritual to Contemporary Pluralism, New York: E.J. Brill.

Richie, Donald (1984) The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Berkeley: The University of California Press.

Richie, Donald (2005) A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, Tokyo: Kodansha Publishing.

Schirokauer, Conrad. Brief History of Japanese Civilization (1993). Toronto: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Yoshimoto, Mitsuhiro (2000) Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Durham, N.C: Duke University Press.

Alireza Vahdani lives in Oxford, UK. He holds a M.A in Popular Cinema and, a B.A in Film Studies/ Communication, Media, and Culture from Oxford Brookes University. He is an Associate Lecturer in Film Studies at Oxford Brookes University. His research interests are Japanese period drama films, Italian popular cinema, classic American Westerns, and English linguistic.

Volume 14, Issue 10 / October 2010 Essays   akira kurosawa   japanese cinema