Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Japan Cuts ’20: Tora-san, Wish You Were Here

Even though he had plenty of heartache, Tora-san never really grew up. However, Japan watched as his family matured and came of age. Twenty-three years after the death of the beloved star, Kiyoshi Atsumi, longtime director Yoji Yamada reunited his surviving cast for the 50th Tora-san film, the moving tribute, Tora-san, Wish You Were Here, which screens as part of the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film (all virtual this year).

Tora-san has been gone for many years now, but he still exerts an influence over his family, especially his beloved nephew, Mitsuo Suwa. The film starts with a memorial service to Suwa’s late wife, but it is really an elegy for Tora-san. For several years, Suwa has cared for his teenaged daughter Yuri, as a single father, but he is also just beginning to realize his ambition to be a novelist. Yet, recently he has been flooded with dream and memories of his high school love, Izumi Bruna. Tora-san knew her pretty well—and most definitely approved.

Of course, he is delighted when she happens to appear at his book signing. As luck would have it, the married Bruna has returned to Japan briefly for the UN and some family business. There is definitely a bit of the old spark between them, but he refuses to burden her with his own tragedies. He is his uncle’s nephew, after all.

Wish You Were Here, Yamada flashes back to important scenes from the previous Tora-san films. However, this is not a cobbled together clip package, like On the Trail of the Pink Panther or certain disappointing series finales (that means you, Seinfeld). The Kuruma and Suwa families’ lives have gone on, so their stories continue here. In fact, Suwa’s reunion with Bruna is quite touching, in a wistful, Brief Encounter kind of way.

Along the way, characters regularly ask, WWTSD? What would Tora-san do? However, that does not always mean it is the right thing to do—sometimes quite the contrary. Indeed, one of the film’s most heartbreaking moment revisits the time Tora-san was too timid to grab the love he had always yearned for.

Yamada shrewdly selects clips that showcase Atsumi’s flair for comedic delivery, as well as his sensitivity as an actor. He really made Tora-san the insecure but lovable slacker, who became like family to his Japanese fans.

Frankly, Chieko Baisho will break your heart just as much or more, reprising her role as Tora-san’s long-suffering sister Sakura (Mitsuo’s mother). To a great extent, the lives of Hidetaka Yoshioka and Kumiko Goto went in different directions. He continued to be a top grown-up star in films like the
Always: Sunset on Third Street franchise, whereas she retired after marrying in the mid-1990s, but she hasn’t lost a step in her return to acting. Their shy romantic chemistry would still be compelling, even if it didn’t have the Tora-san connection.

You could call
Wish You Were Here sentimental, but it earned its emotional payoff over fifty years and fifty films. The audience can feel how much everyone misses Tora-san—and they will come to share the sentiment, by the time the film concludes, if they don’t already from the start. It is a fitting capstone from Yamada, the modern master of domestic drama. Recommended with great affection, Tora-san, Wish You Were Here screens virtually through tomorrow (7/30), as part of the 2020 Japan Cuts.