Tokyo Film Festival Opener 'Tora-san, Wish You Were Here' Revives Beloved Japanese Franchise

Courtesy of Shochiku Co., Ltd.
Kiyoshi Atsumi as Tora-san

'Tora-san, Wish You Were Here' from legendary 88-year-old director Yoji Yamada marks half a century since the start of the heartwarming film series.

This year's Tokyo International Film Festival is set to open with the premiere of Tora-san, Wish You Were Here from legendary Japanese director Yoji Yamada. The 50th film in the comedy series, the longest-running in world cinematic history starring the same lead actor, also marks 50 years since the first release.

The original entry in the Tora-san series, titled Otoko wa Tsuraiyo (It's Tough Being a Man), was released in 1969 following a TV series with the same name and premise. After audiences complained about the lead character Tora-san (Torajiro Kuruma, played by Kiyoshi Atsumi) dying after being bitten by a snake at the end of the TV series, Yamada persuaded studio and distributor Shochiku to let him make a feature film with the same character.

The plot went largely unchanged throughout the films: Traveling salesman Tora-san, a hapless romantic, falls in love with a local woman — referred to as a "Madonna" — but ends up losing her and squabbles with his family upon his humble return to Tokyo.

A Tora-san feature was released every summer and year-end from 1969-89, then one a year from 1990-95. The pics were nothing short of a social and cultural phenomenon in Japan, and also have a cult following in China, mostly through pirated copies (as Chinese tourism to Japan has boomed over the past five years, Chinese visitors have been known to flock to destinations featured in the beloved film series).

When Atsumi became too ill to continue, Yamada brought the series to a close, having directed 46 of the 48 films and writing or co-writing all of them.

"For the last film, Atsumi was ill and only had a few years left. We had to adjust the script in response to that and weren't sure if we should shoot it," Yamada recalled at a press conference in Tokyo in early October after a preview screening.

The director said he was full of a "mixture of hope and expectation" when tackling the reboot, and conscious that he "could not betray" Tora-san's fans.

Welcome Back, Tora-san follows the romantic tribulations of Mitsuo Suwa, Tora-san's nephew. Hidetaka Yoshioka, who plays Mitsuo, portrayed the same character as a youth in many of the films. Atsumi is brought back to the screen via flashbacks from some of the earlier pics, and many of the original cast, including Chieko Baisho as Tora-san's sister, reprise their roles.

"Really, it took me 50 years to make this film. I suppose being able to live this long has made this possible," said Yamada. "When I think about being 88 years old, I get scared about whether I can still shoot films," he added. "But then Clint Eastwood is still directing. And then there were Portugal's Manoel de Oliveira and Japan's Kaneto Shindo, who both carried on directing until they were 100 years old, so maybe I have a little more to go."

Welcome Back, Tora-san is set to open Dec. 27 in Japan.

The Tokyo International Film Festival runs Monday-Nov. 5.