It has always struck me as strange that the stories of Robin Hood should crop up in Europe at the same time as stories of the heroes of the Water Margin in China and of Yoshitsune in Japan. What is it about the late 12th century that suddenly favours stories of noble outlaws opposing dastardly governments? Why is it that for every story of Robin Hood facing Little John on a log across a stream, there is an analogue in the East, like that of Yoshitsune fighting Benkei on the Gojo Bridge?
It’s something that I had in mind when the call came through from Big Finish for me to write a story in their new series of Robin Hood talking books. I decided that if so many stories of Robin Hood already had analogues in Japan, I would hunt down one that didn’t and then add it to the Robin Hood canon.
I love Yoshitsune: the beautiful young general who won a war in the Shogun’s name, only to be hunted like a criminal when he became too popular for his own good. It was Robert Shea’s retelling of his story in Shike: Time of the Dragons that first awakened my interest in Japan. For the last thirty years, the story of Yoshitsune has served as a constant foundation for my Japanese studies. I have a picture, here on my office wall, of Yoshitsune and Benkei’s first meeting on the Gojo bridge. I have a shelf full of books about the Genpei Wars, which one day I am sure I shall use in a book of my own, and of course, I have a copy of Akira Kurosawa’s Those Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail.
Made in 1945, in the closing days of WW2, Those Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail retold a famous incident from Japanese legend. On the run from the vengeful Shogun, Yoshitsune and the last of his loyal followers must somehow bluff their way past a border post, disguised as itinerant monks. Benkei, who is the Japanese version’s looming combination of Friar Tuck and Little John, speaks for the assembled travellers, and is eventually forced to strike his own master, who is disguised as a lowly porter. His act convinces the guards that the porter cannot possibly be the noble Yoshitsune, and the merry men make it through the checkpoint, and live to fight another day.
Based on a folktale that predates the kabuki and Noh versions that have themselves endured for many centuries, Those Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail presents warriors at their nadir, at the moment of their worst defeat, pressing on in the hope that they will be able to regroup, reinforce, resurge. It had powerful resonances in wartime Japan, so powerful in fact that Occupation censors refused to permit its release until 1952.
Naturally, when the call came, and I began to contemplate a Robin Hood story that had not already been done, my thoughts turned to Yoshitsune, and I came up with this:
“Trapped behind enemy lines in the Holy Land, Robin must somehow get King Richard to safety. Outnumbered a hundred to one in a forbidding desert, Robin and the faithful Much use disguise and deception to elude their pursuers and save the King. Faced with imminent capture and deadly adversaries, their mission is as dangerous as treading on a tiger’s tail.”
Considering the number of allusions to popular music and movies in the BBC’s Robin Hood, I thought it was pretty neat. But I’m weird like that.