'Tora-san, Wish You Were Here': Film Review | Tokyo 2019

Courtesy of Tokyo International Film Festival
A surprisingly emotional side of Japan.

Tora-san the traveling salesman celebrates 50 years on the screen in the 50th film in the series, which is still directed by 88-year-old Yoji Yamada and features (via scenes from old movies) Kiyoshi Atsumi as the beloved loser.

The Tokyo International Film Festival has found the ideal opening night movie in Tora-san, Wish You Were Here, an obvious local crowd-pleaser whose heartfelt charm will impress even those film lovers who haven’t grown up with the franchise. The pic is Shochiku’s reboot of the beloved, tearful Tora-san family dramas that have rolled on, at the rate of one or two a year, for a record-breaking 50 years since the first film in the series, It’s Tough Being a Man (Otoko wa Tsuraiyo), appeared in 1969.

Kiyoshi Atsumi brought the character to life, and with the actor's death in 1996 after 48 films, the series’ die-hard fans believed that Tora-san, a poor traveling salesman who falls in love in each movie but never manages to settle down, was dead, too. The franchise’s legendary writer-director Yoji Yamada made a touching salute to the glories of old Japanese cinema and Tora-san in particular in Niji wo Tsukamu Otoko, considered the 49th film in the series. Will the 50th finally bring an end to the wise, free-spirited fool who has bewitched generations of Japanese (and even Chinese) viewers?

Given all its historical baggage, Tora-san, Wish You Were Here is surprisingly pleasurable to watch. Yamada, who co-scripts with Yuzo Asahara, opts not for another of the standard plots, but a further tribute to Atsumi and his deathless character. Tora-san is revived with long excerpts from his films, which give newbies to the series an excellent idea of who he is and why this burly, emotional lout has such a hold on audiences.

Though Tora opens the film with a wistful love song on a Technicolor beach (all the excerpts look like they are in need of restoration), he is not the main character here. The story centers on his nephew Mitsuo Suwa, played by Hidetaka Yoshioka as a grown man. In a scene lifted from archive footage, the same actor appears as a young boy distressed by uncle Tora-san’s threat to cheer rowdily for him at a ball game — how cute is that? Mitsuo’s love interest Izumi, played by the sophisticated Kumiko Goto, is also a grown-up version of her younger self. It’s amazing to see the real-life aging process at work on these actors, and Yamada uses it shamelessly often, flipping back and forth between today and yesterday to compare faces.

Other characters played by the original actors include Tora-san’s half-sister Sakura (Chieko Baisho), who is seen both as a delicate young woman and an aged granny, and Gin Maeda as her husband Hiroshi. They play Mitsuo’s old parents in the present film, still living in their café and candy shop in scenic Shibamata with open doors to family, friends and neighbors. There is also the recurring series character of Lily the lounge singer, played by Ruriko Asaoka as a sort of stand-in for all the women who have lost their hearts to Tora-san over the years, to whom he has “almost” proposed before disappearing into the sunset.

But Tora-san also lives on in the heart of his mop-headed, sad-eyed nephew Mitsuo, a fledgling novelist who takes care of his teenage daughter Yuri after losing his wife six years prior. At a book-signing stint, he chances upon his old flame Izumi, who left him to live in Europe and is now working for the U.N.’s refugee commission. She, too, is married with kids, and their reunion appears doomed from the start, despite the obvious feelings they still have for one another.

Though everyone is urging Mitsuo to remarry, even his daughter, he can’t let go of his wife’s memory. Tossing and turning sleeplessly at night, he invokes the spirit of his uncle, whose words of wisdom encourage him. In this way, Tora-san is still a powerful member of the Suwa family, which is still closely knit despite arguments and squabbles. In contrast, Izumi’s parents have broken up into mean-spirited, self-centered components. So Japanese family life is not all sleeping side-by-side on futons and tatamis, but includes the powerful negative emotions selfishness and self-hatred that spin people apart.

Though the boisterous ensemble acting and vintage colors of the archive scenes are distinctive, they are painlessly integrated into the modern story via the characters and the musical continuity of Junnosuke Yamamoto's score, which throws in an unobtrusive bit of violin where needed.

Production company: Shochiku
Cast: Kiyoshi Atsumi, Chieko Baisho, Hidetaka Yoshioka, Kumiko Goto, Gin Maeda, Chizuru Ikewaki, Mari Natsuki, Ruriko Asaoka

Director: Yoji Yamada
Screenwriters: Yuzo Asahara, Yoji Yamada
Music: Junnosuke Yamamoto
Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival (opening film)
World sales: Shochiku Intl.

115 minutes