Production Company: Shochiku
Release: 23 December 1995
Length: 110 min.
Format: 35 mm
Director: Yamada Yoji
Executive Producer: Nakagawa Shigehiro
Producer: Fukuzawa Hiroshi
Screenplay: Yamada Yoji, Asama Yoshitaka
Photography: Naganuma Rokuo
Art Director: Degawa Mitsuo
Editor: Ishii Iwao
Kuruma Torajiro: Atsumi Kiyoshi
Lily: Asaoka Ruriko
Mitsuo: Yoshioka Hidetaka
Izumi: Goto Kumiko
Sakura: Baisho Chieko
Tora’s Lost World
Just as the rather odd signs of Christmas, at least in Japan–such as Santa appearing the department stores and carols filling the air–peak, two other markers of the season assault Japanese movie screens: Godzilla and Tora-san.
This year, Godzilla is dead, but Tora-san will seemingly live on forever as a Japanese institution.
Tora-san, for those of who have been paying too much attention to Zen and Kabuki to learn about popular Japanese culture, is the incorrigible star of the world’s longest running movie series, “Otoko wa tsurai yo.” In every episode, the itinerant salesman Kuruma Torajiro (Atsumi Kiyoshi), after making a mess of things at his sister Sakura’s sweet shop in Tokyo’s shitamachi, travels to different areas of Japan and falls in platonic but unrequited love with a local girl, a role that has been played by some of Japan’s biggest actresses.
As a cultural institution, Tora-san embodies many of the contradictions of Japanese society. As an outsider, Torajiro cannot stand the strictures of Japanese work and family life, his straight-forwardness often undermining society’s arbitrary rules.
shitamachi society they depicted. That an outsider serves to represent traditional urban culture is certainly ironic, but it is clear the Tora-san films can only give off their patented nostalgic warmth by depicting a world hopelessly gone. From Torajiro’s clothes to the architecture of the Kuruma shop, most everything in these films is out of date. But Yamada acknowledges that, in part so as to sculpt out an idyllic, but petrified world that satisfies the nostalgic longings of many a Japanese.
Reaching 48 episodes with this year’s Otoko wa tsurai yo: Torajiro, kurenai no hana, the series’ nostalgia is beginning to center on itself. While still following the pattern, No. 48 is less a new adventure than a fond recollection of Tora-san’s past.
Here he hooks up again with a “madonna” from days gone by: Lily (Asaoka Ruriko), the singer he fell in love with in episodes 11, 15, and 25. Lily, often compared to Tora in her itinerant ways, is the only woman who really loves him. The movie also takes up the problem of Mitsuo (Yoshioka Hidetaka), Sakura’s son who had spent episodes 42 through 45 pining after his former classmate, Izumi (Goto Kumiko).
Izumi visits Mitsuo to tell him she is thinking of getting married. When Mitsuo is unable to raise any objection, she stubbornly decides to go ahead with the deed, until Mitsuo arrives to crash the wedding procession.
Run out of town, Mitsuo wanders half-suicidally down to Kyushu until he quite by chance runs into Lily and Tora-san “sexlessly” living together on the Kagoshima island paradise of Amami. Mitsuo is finally able to confess his love to Izumi, but what will happen with Tora-san and Lily?
The story might be juvenile and predictable (what fool would bet on Torajiro marrying Lily at the end?), but the pleasure of watching Tora-san is mostly in recognizing a now familiar world. It is fun simply seeing Tora-san do what Tora-san does, and re-experiencing the pleasures and people we encountered in previous episodes. If our world transforms, it is nice to know that the life of the Kuruma clan does not.
Even when we see Tora-san, in a brilliantly funny take on Forrest Gump, romping around Kobe after the quake, electronically inserted next to Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi, we are rest assured that such a horrible catastrophe could not alter the innocence of Yamada’s world.
In certain aspects, the series is beginning to look old: Atsumi looks like he can’t do much wandering anymore and Sakura’s Baisho Chieko appears painfully aged. To many contemporary eyes, the films’ values are conservative and unrealistic and the filmmaking bland and unoriginal. Yet it cannot be denied that the world etched out in the Tora-san movies has become a centerpiece of contemporary Japanese culture. Not because it faithfully depicts that culture: such a “traditional culture” has long since ceased to exist (if it ever did exist in the form Yamada portrays). Rather, it is because many Japanese feel a deep-seated need to believe such a world still surrounds them.
Reviewed by Aaron Gerow
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 28 December 1995, p. 9.
Note: This review was published before the unfortunate death of Atsumi Kiyoshi. (AG)
Copyright 1995: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow