Tora San (1969)

18 01 2008

I assume most readers are well aware of Yoji Yamada’s 48 episode film series, Tora San but I’ll provide a little background information anyway. Each episode concerns the heartbreak of a traveling salesman, Torajiro. According to wikipedia, the “standard plot” leads to him unintentionally setting up the woman he has fallen for with another man. The series is based on the Japanese television program Goofy Brother and Wise Sister, which aired from 1968 to 1969. Shochiku was understandbly skeptical about a full feature spin-off but Yamada convinced them otherwise. It’s these films that forever put Yamada on the Japanese cinema map.

The series’ first film definitely fits the mold of the narrative in the later films, but I think there’s actually some themes that are a bit more prevalent. We’re introduced to Torajiro (Kiyoshi Atsumi in a career-defining role) via voice-over. He’s going back home after running away twenty years ago. We learn that both of his parents are dead and that his Aunt and Uncle have taken care of his sister, Sakura. This is where the most important relationship in the film is introduced. Torajiro doesn’t mope around about being heartbroken for ninety-one. That doesn’t even come up until the very end of the film. Instead, it’s sort of he and his sister getting to know each other better.

The film does take quite awhile to get into a flow. Torajiro is annoying at first then unlikable. Thankfully, the film is able to get out of it’s rough patch even with the excessive amount of slapstick humor holding it down. It’s probably the point when Hiroshi is introduced that he begins to at least be somewhat likable. At the same time, this is when Sakura becomes slightly less of a factor. Her friendship with Torajiro never gets past the wacky antics he performs in the first act. The “heartbreak” story starts to kick in and the brother-sister relationship starts to fade away; the two overlap at the wedding reception.

Speaking of which, Sakura and Hiroshi’s wedding is probably one of the more memorable sequences I’ve seen in a long time. I’m not sure if this means I completely loved it or if I completely hated it. It’s just memorable. One of the more realistic receptions I’ve ever seen depicted in film. Yamada carefully tip-toes his way along a line of melodrama enough so that it feels real but isn’t subdued to pointlessness. Hiroshi’s fathers give a speech that does feel a bit too theatrical but Torajiro’s response (providing a hug amidst awkward silence) saves it. It’s one of those poignant, elusive moments in the film that propels it beyond a cute drama.

Yamada had not developed anything aesthetically unique at this point. At times, this feels almost a bit on the conventional side. Yamada occasionally strikes visual gold (look at the saturation in the picture below) but his style lacks defiance. This is a very performance-driven film, though, and doesn’t really call for any technical virtuosity. Actually, it’s probably better the visuals are so 70s (this was made in ’69) as it directs the audience’s focus towards the important stuff, i.e Torajiro himself. Even as an old salesman, he’s easy to relate to, that is, as long as you don’t judge him while he’s intoxicated.



3 responses

18 01 2008
Michael Kerpan

Yamada was already a very good and experienced director when he made his first Tora-san film. I think that he adopted a simpler style for this series than he would use for his non-series films.

His 1963 “Shitamachi no taiyou” was really quite good (and more sophisticated than his first Tora-san film in 1969). See:

18 01 2008

Wow, those screenshots look fantastic. Maybe I’ll buy it just to look at. If only I knew Japanese.

The screens for that Ichikawa film look pretty neat, too. I’d love to find as many Ozu “impersonators” as possible.

18 01 2008
Michael Kerpan

Most great Japanese cinema will NEVER get released with English subtitles, I suspect. Therefore, I decided to plunge into the “unsubbed world”.

Yoji Yamada is great. I will start investigating more of the Tora-san series once I finish exploring his non-TS films (almost done).

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