An uncanny exercise in pure whimsy, surprisingly potent in its assured manipulation of story layers. Adapted by Naruse from Mushu Ui’s story “Fox Horse,” the film centers on sibling protagonists Hyoroku (Kamatari Fujiwara) and Senpei (Kan Yanagiya), who play the front and back legs of a horse, respectively, in a touring theater troupe, and suffer a series of career-threatening indignities, culminating in their replacement by a real horse. The film is predicated on a single joke: the excessive identification of the actors (especially the dominant Hyoroku) with their equine acting persona. But Naruse plays odd storytelling games from the first scenes, in which a village’s excitement at the arrival of the famous actor Kikugoro, shown via a clichéd montage of reactions, is quickly and quietly deflated when one villager realizes that the troupe has simply renamed its lead actor (Minoru Takase) to create a profitable confusion. A tone of faint surrealsm, of secondary narrative threads built up and dropped, is sustained throughout. For instance, a leisurely paced, atmospheric scene of the troupe at rest during a hot summer day, of no utility to the story, is brought to an abrupt halt when an actor asks a confused maid for a glass of water – at which point Naruse cuts to the protagonists getting water from a gully as they brave the sun to find a horse to study for acting tips. Later, an entire subplot involving an association of businessmen sponsoring the acting troupe is gradually revealed to have no point other than to contrive that one member of the association, a drunken and belligerent barber (Ko Mihashi, the father in THE GIRL IN THE RUMOR), should at a key moment fall onto the head of the actors’ horse costume, squashing it with a Preston Sturges-like exaggerated sound effect.
Against this foundation of broken links and inconsequential acts, Naruse tells the story of the horse actors on two levels. On the top level of psychology, the film dilates on the vanity and self-importance that leads Hyoroku to obsess over the art of playing a horse’s front legs. This everyday egocentricity is pitted against a world whose appraisal of the value of horse impersonation is brutally realistic: “The guy who plays the pantomime horse is really picky,” explains the troupe leader in the course of placating the barber. The resulting negotiations between the polite but uncaring management and the intransigent horse impersonator presumably resemble the conversations that Naruse had endured in studio meeting rooms for much of his life. And then, alongside this naturalistic portrait, Naruse improvises a thread of subjectivity and fantasy that reaffirms via style gestures the protagonists’ bond with the animal kingdom. Sometimes Naruse gently lends importance to the actors’ vocation, as when he tracks in portentously on the horse that they have been seeking for purposes of study; other times he identifies the actors with horses directly, either via characterization (Hyoruku often kicks his feet into the ground in equine fashion) or visuals (a sleight-of-hand cut on a camera tilt replaces Hyoroku’s legs with a horse’s legs for a moment). In one of the film’s highlights, the actors stalk the horse that took their job, and a series of point-of-view shots of them watching the horse’s legs as it walks suggests that the actors’ emotions are divided between resentment and envy. (There follows a beautiful, leisurely sequence in which the disgruntled actors wander through a series of pastoral long shots on their way to bathe in a river: a Fordian evocation of the melancholy of humanity enclosed in the vastness of the world.)
The ending is transformative, as the funny horse suit triumphantly leaves the confines of the theater and claims the expansive landscape for its own. The twin levels of psychological observation and fantasy merge explosively: we are aware that Hyoroku is running amok out of pent-up frustration (not least because the back legs continuously call out to the front legs in alarm), but Naruse gives the fox-headed horse its own closeups and its own agency as it casts off the bonds of reality and revels in its moment of glorious wish-fulfillment. The crazy ending makes TRAVELLING ACTORS feel like a deeper study of people: one imagines that Renoir or Boris Barnet would have liked to have made this film.