Born in 1931 in Osaka, Yoji Yamada entered the Shochiku studio in 1954 at the height of Japanese cinema’s postwar Golden Age. He debuted as a director in 1961 with the comedy “The Strangers Upstairs” and thereafter specialized in the genre, though he found hits hard to come by.
In 1969 his fortunes began to change with the first of what were to be 48 films in a series of comedies about a wandering peddler named Torajiro Kuruma, but universally known as Tora-san. Based on a 1968-1969 TV series that Yamada had scripted and directed, the Tora-san films were set in the hero’s home of Shibamata, a neighborhood in Tokyo’s shitamachi (“old downtown”) district. Played by Kiyoshi Atsumi, Tora-san was a voluble, excitable type around family and neighbors, including his long-suffering half-sister Sakura (Chieko Baisho), but shy and awkward around the women he met and wooed in every episode.
Though a perennial loser at romance, Tora-san become a fan favorite in Japan, boosting the bottom line of the Shochiku studio decade after decade until the last film in 1995. The following year, Atsumi died of cancer and, after making a 1997 “tribute” film, Yamada put his most famous character into what he assumed would be permanent retirement.
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But after a successful post-Tora career, including the Oscar-nominated period drama “Twlight Samurai” (2002) and the hit “What a Wonderful Family!” comedy series (three episodes, 2016-2018), Yamada returns to the Tokyo International Film Festival with “Tora-san, Wish You Were Here” the 50th film in the now 50-year-old series. Selected to open the festival, the film focuses on Tora’s now middle-aged nephew Mitsuo (Hidetaka Yoshioka) whose reminiscences about his wayward uncle serve as a frame for clips from the series.
Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on Oct. 3, Yamada said: “When I saw the finished film I realized that I needed 50 years to make it… it’s wonderful that at the age of 88 I could make this kind of film.” And he intends to keep going. “In the U.S., Clint Eastwood is still working away. And directors like Kaneto Shindo and Manoel de Oliveira of Portugal kept shooting films until they were 100, so there’s still hope for me.”