Production Company: Shochiku
Release: 28 December 1996
Format: 35 mm
Director: Yamada Yoji
Executive Producer: Nakagawa Shigehiro
Producers: Fukuzawa Hiroshi, Motoki Katsuhide
Screenplay: Yamada Yoji, Asama Yoshitaka
Photography: Naganuma Rokuo
Music: Yamamoto Naozumi
Art Director: Degawa Mitsuo
Editor: Ishii Isao
Shirogane Katsuo: Nishida Toshiyuki
Hirayama Ryo: Yoshioka Hidetaka
Tonari Yaeko: Tanaka Yuko
Tsune, the projectionist: Tanaka Kunie
Priest: Suma Kei
Akabane, the mailman: Yanagisawa Shingo
Shigeru: Kanbe Hiroshi
Kaneko: Matsugane Yoneko
Officer Yoshii: Tsuruta Shinobu
Section Chief Saito: Emoto Akira
Hirayama Haruko: Baisho Chieko
Hirayama Akira: Maeda Gin
Village mayor: Shimojo Masami
Antoku, the school teacher: Nagase Masatoshi
Tonari Kaori: Miyashita Junko
Send in the clones
But with the annual “Otoko” episode always providing a nice boost to Shochiku’s end-of-the-year balance sheets, he seemingly could not leave well enough alone. He had to make the next best thing: a Kuruma copy.
Putting it nicely, Shochiku’s New Year’s entry, Niji o tsukamu otoko, is an homage to Tora-san without the requisite reverential distance.
Ryo (Yoshioka Hidetaka, who played Mitsuo in the “Otoko” series) runs away from his parents (played by Baisho Chieko and Maeda Gin, his parents in the original) and his native Shibamata (Tora’s haunt) to find himself in beautiful Tokushima Prefecture in Shikoku.
There he gets hired by Shirogane Katsuo (Nishida Toshiyuki, a regular in Yamada’s other films), an eccentric movie theater owner who disregards the profit motive to bring good films to the boonies. Katsuo (the name is a pun on “movie man”) may be more rooted than the itinerant Kuruma, but he shares Torajiro’s romantic ineptitude, long being unable to express his love for the widowed Tonari Yaeko (Tanaka Yuko, the Madonna from “Otoko” No. 30).
Most of the ingredients for a Tora-san flick are here, but with some added spice: the silver screen. Niji o tsukamu otoko is awash with film references and homages, from the films Katsuo actually shows (such as Forbidden Games (“Jeux interdits,” dir: Rene Clement, 1951), The Long Absence (“Une aussi longue absence,” dir: Henri Corbi, 1960), and Shochiku classics like Kinoshita Keisuke’s You Were Like a Wild Chrysanthemum (“Nogiku no gotoki kimi nariki,” 1955) and Ozu Yasujiro’s Tokyo Story (“Tokyo monogatari,” 1953)) to the names of the characters (“Yaeko Tonari” is a play on the Japanese title of Shimazu Yasujiro’s 1934 classic Our Neighbor Miss Yae: “Tonari no Yae-chan”).
But none of this is very new. Nishida has played a movie theater owner before on TV and Yamada has already tried to bring Japanese film history to the screen in his 1986 Final Take (“Kinema no tenchi”). Niji’s watery-eye nostalgia for the golden age of cinema has much in common with the bathetic Cinema Paradiso (“Nuovo Cinema Paradiso,” dir: Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988–a film Katsuo screens), but lacks the latter’s sugar-coated European cachet.
Clearly Yamada barrages us with film citations to convince us that cinema is a textbook for living, a means of understanding and coping with our world. When Ryo asks Katsuo why he doesn’t come right out and tell Yaeko that he loves her, he answers by showing him the first Otoko wa tsurai yo, explaining that it epitomizes his philosophy of life.
Yet just as few of Yamada’s homages relate the wisdom and brilliance of the originals, that film does not answer Ryo’s question. Tora-san cannot express his feelings because he is the ultimate outsider, both out-of-date and innocently divorced from the sexual quagmire that life in the real world can be. Katsuo, however, should know better: to say the least, he has seen far too many French movies to be as naive as Torajiro. Tsune (Tanaka Kunie), his curmudgeony projectionist, says as much when he chides Katsuo about his ignorance of women.
In the end, it seems that Katsuo acts the way he does simply because it is his fate to fill the Kuruma cubby hole in Yamada’s formula for success. The fact that Yaeko herself can only express her love for Katsuo when she is compelled to play the role of his wife (after the two are mistaken for a married couple) reinforces the impression that in Yamada’s world, role playing itself is the only truth, convention the only reality.
Yamada cuts on action between Katsuo narrating his favorite movies and scenes from those works, melding the two worlds. But this less serves as an homage to those films than renders Katsuo’s world a parasitic imitation of the movies. When he breaks into a rain dance following the steps of Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, the Shikoku set turns into Los Angeles and Yamada’s Japan into an a-national utopia, a floating filmic fantasy blandly divorced of any reality.
Niji o tsukamu otoko ends up being less an homage to cinema than an endless spiral of film imitating film, a reflection of cinema in a hall of mirrors. It copies Tora-san, but the “Otoko” films mostly mimicked themselves or other tired Shochiku formulas. While Niji is mildly entertaining, it is clear it is time for this exhausted merry-go-round to end.
Reviewed by Aaron Gerow
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 16 January 1997, p. 5.
Copyright 1997: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow