Japanese screen legend Kiyoshi Atsumi built his entire career on one role. For nearly three decades, the comic actor played a character named Torajiro Kuruma — “Tora-san” to his on-screen family and real-world fans — appearing in approximately two new installments of the long-running franchise per year. To Japanese audiences, Atsumi was Tora-san, a connection the actor encouraged by appearing in precious few other film roles beyond the benevolent vagrant, who was a traveling salesman-cum-free spirit, sparking brief but unsuccessful romances with a variety of women on the road while nudging the love lives of his shy sister and awkward nephew toward more traditional happiness.
When Atsumi died in 1996, so too did the popular film series, meaning that audiences have been without their beloved Uncle Tora-san for more than 20 years. Now, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first movie, director Yoji Yamada (who helmed all but two of the character’s 49 features) assembles most of the original cast for its 50th installment, “Tora-san, Wish You Were Here,” cleverly resurrecting the character’s presence via flashbacks to scenes lifted from earlier films (with a few CG touches thrown in to suggest he’s still watching over his family). “If you need my help, say my name into the wind,” he says in one such memory — although technology hasn’t advanced quite far enough to resurrect him entirely.
The effect is not unlike watching the reunion episode of a long-running TV show, minus its most important character. Everyone stands around talking about how much they miss Tora-san, cueing the producers to roll tape on great scenes from a lifetime ago, when he did something that delighted audiences at the time — such as his epic overreaction to an honest mistake, when he walked in on his family enjoying a melon he had brought home, which sister Sakura (Chieko Baisho) sliced up and served without thinking to save him a piece.
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Tora-san often played the buffoon, but unlike those international comedic icons whose disruptive presence has a tendency to make things worse, his sincere but misguided efforts to help out had a roundabout way of resolving the situation at hand. Here, a perfect example would be the time Tora-san butted into his dear sister Sakura’s slow-burning courtship with her future husband, upsetting things enough that it prompted both parties to declare their feelings and get married. By contrast, Tora-san could never get his own romances to stick, invariably losing out to some other man on the revolving cast of guest stars who played his “Madonnas” (as his girlfriends were called) — although we learn how an old flame named Lily (Ruriko Asaoka) came closest.
“My mom loves those movies,” a local told me at the Tokyo Int’l Film Festival, which kicked off with the highly anticipated (by such mothers) but far-from-hip premiere, two months before its Dec. 27 release in Japan. For Tora-san’s loyal followers, this posthumous encore will likely strike an emotional chord, reminding of a paradoxical kind of antihero, someone who managed to exist outside Japan’s rigid set of social expectations even as he represented a conservative view of how things ought to be: a do-as-he-pleased drifter with old-school values. For foreigners or entire generations too young to have formed a relationship with the character, this is an odd but somehow ideal way to educate oneself, since the movie is constantly reminding audiences of the role Tora-san played in the family’s development.
Over the years, the franchise established certain recurring patterns, including the significance of the opening dream sequence, which framed the characters’ expectations of what was to follow for the audience. Here, the dream belongs to Mitsuo (Hidetaka Yoshioka, a child actor who grew up in the role and has worked steadily since the series’ end), who has become a husband, father and widower since audiences last saw him 22 years earlier. Once the misfit member of the Suwa clan, he has grown into a respectable middle-aged man. On the sixth anniversary of his wife’s death, family friends urge him to consider remarrying, paving the way for the script (which Yomada co-wrote with Yuzo Azahara) to reunite Mitsuo with Izumi (Kumiko Goto), the girlfriend he had back in the mid-’90s, as the series was winding down.
Izumi now works for the United Nations, stopping through Tokyo just long enough to stumble upon Mitsuo’s book signing. When Yamada turns earnest, boy, does he lay things on thick, as the scene from Izumi’s save-the-refugees presentation demonstrates. The humor here is broad and relatively gentle, as it was in the earlier films, relying on often untranslatable puns, polite misunderstandings and the occasional fart joke (delivered here via dialogue, when Tora-san says, “If I eat a sweet potato, do you fart?”).
Even if Tora-san doesn’t walk back into their lives, this return to a key courtship involving the film’s youngest character will be welcomed by its fan base, and there are plenty of golden Atsumi moments to remind them why he was such a singular star, building up to the supercut that serves as the finale — where you really need to have seen the films to appreciate the context of all those favorite scenes. That said, the movie’s love for Tora-san comes through loud and clear even to the uninitiated.
Not that it’s likely to gain the franchise any new fans. “Tora-san, Wish You Were Here” feels terribly dated in its style, shot like a 1980s sitcom rather than a classical Ozu film or a slick modern-day comedy. The film opens and closes with Tora-san’s “Otoko wa Tsurai yo” theme song (aka “It’s tough being a man”), and in between, the string score trowels on the nostalgic sentimentality, as if this were a 1950s melodrama, not a series born on the heels of Teshigahara, Suzuki and the Japanese new wave. Nearly the entire ensemble’s acting is stilted and old-fashioned, and sad to say, so is Atsumi’s, part of a tradition in which actors played to the camera rather than for naturalism. Alas, Tora-san’s time has passed. Saying his name into the wind won’t bring him back — although in a way, it serves to keep his memory alive.