Monday, July 20, 2020

Japan Cuts ’20: Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp

His full name is Torajiro Kuruma, but everyone calls him just plain Tora-san. After forty-nine films, Japanese fans felt like he was a member of the family. Technically, the movie franchise reincarnated him. Tora-san originally premiered in a one-season TV series that outraged viewers by killing him off in the final episode. Yoji Yamada never made that mistake. He would helm Kiyoshi Atsumi in all but two Tora-san films, starting with the original, Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp (a.k.a. It’s Hard to Be a Man), which screens as part of the Tora-san sidebar celebration during the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film (all virtual this year).

Tora-san always fought with his father, so he left home early and never came back. However, he has started feeling sentimental, so he decided to return home. His kid sister Sakura is all grown up now, but she still lives with their aunt and uncle, because her marriage prospects are limited without a dowry. In fact, Tora-san comes home just in time to spoil a potential marriage negotiation arranged by her employer.

Poor Tora-san will never master the art of courtship. However, this will be the first time he tries to romance a woman on his own behalf, when he starts putting the moves on Fuyuko Tsubouchi, the daughter of Gozensama, the temple priest. She is way out of his league, but there might be hope yet for Sakura.

A Tora-san statue has been erected in the Shibamata district of Tokyo, where the films are set—and appropriately so. Starting with
Tramp, the films lovingly capture the rhythms of life blue collar, lower-middle class neighborhood. Everyone works hard and does the best they can there, even Tora-san.

Despite the cliched description of Tora-san as a “lovable loser,” Atsumi’s portrayal is much subtler than you might expect. He is a bit of an idiot, but he has heart and we definitely feel for him when it is broken. There is no question Atsumi was the sort of clown who could also make viewers cry. Indeed, it is rather sweet to watch his sibling chemistry with Chieko Baisho, who portrays Sakura with wonderful sensitivity. As a result, it is easy to see why Yamada had her return in many subsequent Tora-san films.

also features two recognizable faces of classic Japanese cinema. Chishu Ryu (who played so many wonderful Ozu fathers) is uncharacteristically chilly as the Priest. On the other hand, Akira Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura really lowers the emotional boom as the surprise guest who shows up at a big family gathering.

Our Lovable Tramp
established Yamada’s formula and it just continued to work and work. It still holds up after over fifty years since its initial release. Yamada always credited Atsumi, believing he could not continue the series without him. Yet, Yamada is also a crucial part of the equation. Still working in his late eighties, Yamada handles family themes better than just about any other filmmaker working throughout his long career. (Just check out Kabei: Our Mother and weep like a baby.) Highly recommended as the classic it is, Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp screens virtually through July 30th, as part of the 2020 Japan Cuts.