‘Wish you were here, Tora-san’: A very personal review

ONLY the Japanese can do this—to make a film that follows the past using the images from the cinema in which those images appeared in historical time.

This is the film about Tora-san. Played by Kiyoshi Atsumi, Tora-san was this character—loving and lovable, opinionated. A kind of Japanese Everyman with an attitude that straddled those that Japanese rural societies value, as imagined by those who long for the past, and who are at the same time missed and puzzled over by the modern men and women of Japan. That was the character; the cinematic past is Kiyoshi Atsumi playing the character all throughout his life, in some 48 installments or episodes.

The series was known by its title, Otoko wa Tsurai yo (translated as “It’s tough being a man”). It was directed by Yoji Yamada, who is noted for his Samurai trilogy: The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade and Love and Honor. The first film, The Twilight Samurai, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in the 76th Academy Awards. 

The series is said to be, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest-running movie series starring a single actor. Kiyoshi Atsumi was Tora-san and Tora-san was Kiyoshi Atsumi. When he passed away, the admirer of the films and the actor believed Tora-san also passed on.

I was in Japan when Kiyoshi Atsumi died. And I was there when the other series were screened. Always, I remember the actor/Tora-san (for they were interchangeable) with a small luggage and an open road. The magic was that one never knew whether this elegant, rambunctious vagabond was leaving or arriving. Those were the two options. Tora-san was never in transit.

It was, therefore, with the magic of cinema and the grandeur of loyalty that I would have the privilege to see the 5oth Tora-san series as part of the opening film for journalists in the recently concluded Tokyo International Film Festival. It was also the opening film for the festival.

What the filmmaker, Yoji Yamada, did was to gather footages, which were in 4K restored condition from the more than 40 series, and continue each scene. The power and efficacy of this narrative was finding the same actors—with the exception of Kiyoshi Atsumi—as they are now.

The plot refrains from following the old template of Tora-san encountering a woman or getting mixed up in a fight or a conflict, leaving the place and then coming back. This time, the film looks at a nephew, Mitsuo, beloved by Tora-san. The film opens with the young boy worried that no one will be with him during the sports festival in his school. His uncle promises to be around but the uncle has “grand” plans about his presence in the school and these plans carry with them a behavior that the boy feels will embarrass him. The boy shown in this part of the story is the same boy who acted years and years ago as that boy. He is Hidetaka Yoshioka. Later in the film, the actor plays the boy all grown up (or aged). The boy you see anxious about his overeager uncle is now a published author, a man who has just lost his wife.

Of course, Mitsuo had a girlfriend when he was a teenager, the young man hopelessly in love played again by a Hidetaka Yoshioka. The girl is Izumi, played by Kumiko Goto. We see her in two ages: as the girl whose heart was treasured by Mitsuo and as the girl who became a sophisticated and cosmopolitan woman whose ambition to achieve something took her far from her first love.

The two lovers meet again. Izumi is back at home for a much-needed break. She surprises Mitsuo, who is signing the book he has just launched. Separation and reunion have never been caught in all its vibrant poignancy until these scenes between Izumi and Mitsuo. We view them and we see how the years have gone by.

If we are to look for the contribution of Yoji Yamada and this film to world cinema, it is in the daring and persistence to gather all living actors that were in the Tora-san series to tell the story of kinship and love once more presently. What makes the contribution monumental is how the film tracks the actors, and offer them to us in their aged and fabulous reincarnations.

The sense that one gets in watching the film, Wish you were here, Tora-san, is a feeling of omniscience and omnipotence. We become gods given the ringside as a filmmaker gathers perhaps for the last time the characters of this lovely fable. It is only in the first few minutes that we feel the odd and old color-grading of the old footages but as soon as the conflicts among the characters and the conflicted in many of them are held up for us to examine once again, we are buoyed by the emotions of the landscape. It is a horizon mapped for us by Tora-san and he is there once more with his erring and unerring advice. He is a presence as we look at what the years have wrought upon those whose lives he has touched or left untouched.

The half-sister of Tora-san, Sakura is here. With the notable actress Chieko Baisho, the person of Sakura seems to be the one who has aged well and gracefully. Gin Maeda as her husband provides an assuring presence. They still live in the village of Shimabata, a district in the outskirts of Tokyo.

One of the most colorful characters is Lily, played by Ruriko Asaoka, she with the deep-throated voice of a woman made wise by heartbreak and personal tragedy. Older, Ruriko Asaoka is a more engaging and less deranged Norma Desmond of a Japanese shitamachi or downtown.

Regrets and just a whiff of resolutions are the gifts of Wish you were here, Tora-san. At the end of the screening, I vowed to travel to Shibamata and there, enjoy the early autumn chill of Tokyo and savor the nostalgia that Japanese films are experts in designing and marketing. Unashamedly, I am a rabid consumer of this rare Japanese commodity.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Previous Article

ICTSI’s Croatian arm hails new intermodal service

Next Article

Brunching in with Chef Noel dela Rama

Related Posts

Read more

‘The Last of Us’: True love
in a post-apocalyptic world

THERE will be endless debates as one gets to the end of this tremendously gripping series, HBO’s The Last of Us, as to which episode is the best. There is however one episode that will undoubtedly be remembered as the most moving of them all. This is “Long Long Time,” Episode 3 of the blockbuster series.