Honestly, I wasn’t sure how I should approach watching Tora-san, Wish You Were Here, never mind reviewing it. It was, after all, made to celebrate the legacy of one of Japan’s most beloved film franchises—a long-running series (spanning a whopping fifty theatrical releases, this entry included) that, sadly, remains predominantly unseen and unknown outside of its native country. Japan Cuts attempted to remedy this situation by making three of the most relevant titles available for rental on the festival website... but is such preparation (which requires an investment of both time and money) truly necessary? After debating with myself for hours, I ultimately decided to forgo the homework and instead judge the movie on its own merits.
Fortunately, I needn’t have agonized: director Yoji Yamada (still going strong at eighty-eight, a full fifty years after helming Tora-san’s cinematic debut) provides the pertinent narrative context via frequent flashbacks. The fact that all five decades’ worth of footage blends together so seamlessly, creating an atmosphere that is simultaneously old-fashioned and timeless, is a testament to his immense talent. It certainly helps that he managed to reunite a majority of the original cast—with the notable exception of Kiyoshi Atsumi, who succumbed to lung cancer in 1996.
Rather than ignoring the obvious absence of his usual leading man, Yamada weaves it into the very fabric of the plot. Much like 2008’s Ichi (the best postmodern interpretation of the Zatoichi mythos to date), Tora-san, Wish You Were Here allows the audience to see the deceased protagonist through the eyes of the loved ones that he left behind, exploring how the eponymous itinerant peddler’s friends and family navigate life’s little challenges without his (unsolicited, often misguided) advice. Their mournful reminiscences lend the story an elegiac quality, elevating it above mere melodrama.
The journey isn’t always perfect: the pace occasionally slows to an excruciating crawl, and the structure nearly buckles under the weight of nostalgia. Overall, however, it's a charming, heartwarming tribute to an iconic character and the actor that brought him to life.