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Yoji Yamada and Tora-san: The resurrection of a Japanese film institution

  • October 23, 2019
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press


The last active director who came up in the Japanese film industry’s 1950s and 1960s Golden Age, Yoji Yamada joined the Shochiku studio in 1954, straight out of the University of Tokyo. He made his directorial debut in 1961 with “The Strangers Upstairs,” a comedy scripted by his directing mentor, Yoshitaro Nomura.


However, Yamada first found big and lasting success with the “Tora-san” series, a string of 48 warm-hearted comedies starring square-faced comic Kiyoshi Atsumi as the wandering peddler Tora, who travels to every corner of Japan but always returns to his home in Shibamata, a neighborhood in Tokyo’s shitamachi, or old downtown. There he reunites with his loving half-sister, Sakura (Chieko Baisho), as well as various other relations and neighbors, though he inevitably — and comically — quarrels with them. He also inevitably falls for a woman, but the path to romance for the shy, bumbling Tora is never smooth, and he and his inamorata of the moment part in the last reel.


Starting in 1969 with “Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp,” whose Japanese title translates as “It’s Tough Being a Man,” the series found favor with fans, including those mad at Yamada for killing off Tora in a 1968-69 TV series that laid the groundwork for the films. Yamada ended up churning out two episodes a year — one for summer and one for release around the year end holidays — though in the 1990s he slowed to one a year until the last series installment in 1995. Atsumi died the following year of lung cancer and, save for one 1997 “tribute” film, that was the end, since it was inconceivable that another actor could take his place.


But Tora has now returned in “Tora-san, Wish You Were Here,” a new Yamada film featuring highlights from the series and a framing story in which Tora’s now middle-aged nephew, Mitsuo (Hidetaka Yoshioka), reminisces about his uncle’s adventures, romantic and otherwise. “Tora-san, Wish You Were Here” will also open the upcoming Tokyo International Film Festival on Oct. 28 before being released in cinemas on Dec. 27.


Yamada, 88, is still sharp and engaged, if a step or two slower than when I last interviewed him, for his 2008 wartime drama “Kabei” (“Our Mother”). The first and most obvious question, though, is why he wanted to revive Tora-san now, other than to commemorate the series’ 50th anniversary?


“Both Japan and the world are becoming more constrained compared with 50 years ago,” Yamada says. “Freedom is disappearing. Tora-san is a free man — the way he thinks and acts is free. So I feel now that I miss him and want to meet him, that it would be great if he were here.


“The Japanese of half a century ago were happier, everyone was full of energy. Now they aren’t. That’s why I made the film, to address the question of why these changes occurred.”


The series, with many cast members appearing in recurring roles, offers a good chance to see characters live their lives in real time over a period of decades. Baisho as Sakura and Gin Maeda as Sakura’s husband, Hiroshi, have been in every film from the first to the 50th, aging from a young couple to pensioners. Meanwhile, the latest film brings back not only Yoshitaka, who made his first series appearance as a child in 1981, but also Ruriko Asaoka as the earthy Lily, the most popular of Tora’s love interests, whose first series film was “Tora’s Forget Me Not” (1973), and Kumiko Goto, who as a teenager played Mitsuo’s girlfriend Izumi, starting with “Tora-san, My Uncle” (1989). In the new film, she is a French-speaking United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees staffer who reconnects with Mitsuo, now a published novelist, at a book signing. They are no longer kids, in other words.


“Given that the history of the movies is about 125 years, a 50-year series is a big chunk of that history,” says Yamada. “Of course, when I was making the films I wasn’t thinking about that. I was just filming them, one at a time. If you had told me at the start that I’d be doing this for 50 years — and that after 50 years those films would be this one series — I would have said you were crazy. But that’s what happened. They’re rare films in that way, so I’d like people abroad to see them.”


To that end, Shochiku has undertaken a project to make 4K digital restorations of the entire series under Yamada’s supervision. He has also taken an active role in internationalizing “Tora-san, Wish You Were Here” in consultation with veteran subtitler Don Brown.


“I met and had various discussions with him about how I wanted this or that translated,” Yamada says.


One character not seen in the new film, save in clips from the old ones, is Tora, since in the mind of Yamada and the series’ millions of fans, no one but Atsumi could play him.


“Tora-san doesn’t age. He’s always the same. Just like Marilyn Monroe or Chaplin. He’s always the same age,” Yamada says, adding that the series only refers to the character’s age once. “It’s in the second film. Sakura says ‘My brother (Tora) is going to be 40 soon.’ That’s the only mention of his age, so Tora-san stays about 40 forever.”


But when I say that Tora’s type is hard to find now, Yamada says, “He still lives in the hearts of Japanese.”


Yamada himself has hardly been static in the quarter century since Atsumi’s last turn as Tora. He made a trilogy of samurai films, with the first, “The Twilight Samurai” (2002), getting an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film. More recently he has returned to the family drama genre with the three films to date in the “What a Wonderful Family!” series (2016-18).


“But I haven’t been able to come up with another character like Tora-san,” he says. “I could only do it because of an actor named Kiyoshi Atsumi.”


And what of the future?


“I’m the same age as Clint Eastwood,” Yamada says. “I’m always cheering him on. ‘Keep going,’ I tell him. I want to keep working since he’s still at it.”


I mention Manoel de Oliveira, the Portuguese director who kept filming almost until his death at the age of 106 in 2015.


“I met him,” Yamada says. “He was about 85 then. ‘Film directors around the world are all struggling to compete with Hollywood,’ he told me. ‘What weapons do you Japanese directors have?’ I didn’t know what to say. ‘You have weapons like kabuki and noh and bunraku, don’t you,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you use them more in your films? Unfortunately, we don’t have traditional arts like that in Portugal. Well, we do have Fado and a tradition of poetry. I sometimes get criticized for having a lot of narration in my films, but I feel I want to make use of that Portuguese cultural tradition.’ I remember him saying that.”


A former studio executive listening to our conversation comments that Yasujiro Ozu — Yamada’s senior at Shochiku — became world-famous for films that were considered very culturally Japanese.


“As I got older, I gradually came to understand him,” Yamada says. “After I turned 40, I felt that Ozu was great.”


With the 50th anniversary of Yamada’s signature series, soon to be more accessible than ever with its 4K restorations, the world may finally think the same about Japan’s most enduringly popular filmmaker and laugh along with his most famous creation.

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