Jerry Lewis in The Big Mouth elucidates the gag -- the affinities between Kabuki and the clown’s art. The inspired young Akira Kurosawa imagines the tensions of the Yoshitsune-Yoritono fraternal clash as a poker game in a bonsai garden, the pantomiming poles are the brave Benkei (Denjiro Okochi) and the earthy, deflating Porter (Kenichi Enomoto). "I guess when you’re a shogun, fighting with your brother is a big deal..." The goal is to escort the lord through inhospitable woods, the warriors’ guise as monks is tested at the barricaded border before the magistrate (Susumu Fujita), who respects an adroit bluffer. (What’s a monk doing with a sword? "It helps us clear the wilderness in our austerities in attaining truth.") The contrast between stout imperial sangfroid and a jester’s double-takes, grimaces and guffaws motors the tall-tale masquerade, until the barrier crumbles in a sake-soaked jig before a painted landscape scrim. Rejected by censors both Japanese ("too little respect for feudal values") and American ("too much respect"), it’s captivating samurai vaudeville that showcases Kurosawa’s scrupulous studies of Ford’s pictorial balladeering (When Willie Comes Marching Home five years later would have a similar flavor) while planting the seeds of The Hidden Fortress and Sanjuro, among others. With Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Akitake Kono, and Hanshiro Iwai. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce