I first became aware of Yoji Yamada back in college, when I discovered his three critically acclaimed revisionist samurai dramas—The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, and Love and Honor—during one of my frequent jidaigeki binges. While these genre-bending masterpieces (produced when he was already in his seventies) remain the director’s best known works among western audiences, however, he is most famous in his native country for his numerous contributions to the long-running Tora-san franchise. Despite the valiant efforts of such distributors as AnimEigo, the vast majority of the beloved character’s forty-eight adventures (forty-six of which were helmed by Yamada himself) are still commercially unavailable in the United States… but that certainly hasn’t stopped American fans from celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of his creation! Japan Society, for example, is screening one movie in the series per month through December (but only on weekdays, which is, unfortunately, totally incompatible with my current schedule); Film Forum, meanwhile, has booked a limited engagement of the itinerant salesman’s inaugural appearance—Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp (It’s Tough Being a Man)—which I had the absolute pleasure of seeing today, in all its 4K, digitally-restored splendor.
What a delightful introduction to actor Kiyoshi Atsumi’s iconic clown! Roger Ebert once described him as “a little Chaplin, a little Jerry Lewis, a little Red Skelton,” but I think he more closely resembles a chattier version of Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot: a well-meaning buffoon that inadvertently destroys everything in his path… but nevertheless manages to (equally unwittingly) leave some good in his wake. Clad in an oversized checkered coat (which he drapes across his shoulders like a cape) and lugging a battered leather suitcase bursting at the seams with shoddy counterfeit wares, Torajiro Kuruma returns to his sleepy hometown of Shibamata (where today there stands a statue of his likeness, making this fictional figure an honorary resident of the very real neighborhood) following a twenty year absence. Almost immediately, his brash attitude, blunt honesty, and blatant disregard for pomp and ceremony bring him into conflict with the more traditional, conservative members of his estranged family. His overindulgence in alcohol and juvenile sense of humor, for instance, are directly responsible for alienating his younger sister’s wealthy prospective husband… and yet, she was never truly invested in the arranged marriage, and merely accepted the proposal because she was too polite to turn it down. Later, Tora’s ill-advised meddling in her relationship with her actual crush (a mild-mannered factory worker) nearly derails the romance in its infancy… and yet, resolving the ensuing farcical misunderstanding ultimately inspires the timid lovebirds to finally move on from silent mutual pining.
Of course, our hapless hero isn’t quite so lucky in his own pursuits; like the roaming ronin and wandering gunslingers of old, he’s destined to walk off into the sunset alone, having no place in the community that he’s worked so hard to enrich—though, humorously enough, he rarely stays away for long. Indeed, his perseverance will persist even beyond Atsumi’s death: a new installment in the previously dormant franchise will be released at the end of 2019, once again directed by Yamada (still going strong at eighty-eight). Hopefully, this revival will spark a renewed interest in these underappreciated cinematic gems—and, eventually, result in the announcement of a complete series box set.
Are you listening, Criterion Collection?