The print of Traveling Actors that I viewed translated the title as the cumbersome yet infinitely more appropriate Actors Who Play the Horse. An awkwardly literal description of the film’s one-joke-to-the-extreme premise, it nonetheless more powerfully evokes the allegorical qualities inherent to director Mikio Naruse’s comic Zen parable. Despite a few expositional lulls (dis)courtesy of the supporting cast (flaws that we might attribute, per film historian Audie Bock’s indispensable book Japanese Film Directors to the fact that the movie was heavily cut by its producers), Traveling Actors remains Naruse’s out-and-out funniest work, a comedy of numerous surface pleasures that unexpectedly deepens in retrospect. In the characters of Hyoroku Ichikawa (Kamatari Fujiwara) and Senpei Nakamura (Kan Yanagiya)—low-level, yet intensely serious traveling theater actors who play, respectively, the front and rear legs of a pantomime horse—Naruse creates a hilariously existential tragicomic duo, a Vladimir and Estragon who have found a Godot that, as narrative circumstances soon dictate, they must defend at any and all costs.
Explaining and demonstrating their craft to a pair of awestruck geishas, Hyoroku and Senpei come across as the most ingratiating of divas; a lesser director would mock them, no doubt portraying their method acting neighs and whinnies (cloaked in the guise of satire) as the ultimate in grand delusions. But Naruse has an affection and love for these characters that is far removed from cruel condescension. Indeed, the director continuously illustrates how genuinely satisfied Hyoroku and Senpei are in their chosen profession while simultaneously demonstrating how the duo’s onstage performance shapes their offstage behavior. In a sequence where Kikugoro (Minoru Takase), the theater troupe manager, informs Hyoroku and Senpei that a real horse is going to replace them (a decision clinched, interestingly, by the theater audience’s explosive reaction to the animal’s impromptu mid-performance urination), Naruse shoots the pair’s exit from leg height, quietly observing as they fall into a touchingly dejected equine lock step. It’s an oft-repeated visual motif, one that builds in its comic insight and intensity to Traveling Actors’ climactic man-versus-beast showdown where all the world becomes a stage and a four-legged pretender to the theatrical throne is uproariously run out of town.