The 14th of a whopping 48 Tora-san movies, Tora-san's Lullaby (Otoko wa tsurai yo: Torajiro komoriuta, or "It's Tough to Be a Man: Torajiro the Babysitter," 1974) is a typically fine entry with not much to distinguish it from the rest of the series, though it's still quite good. By this time, whether Japanese audiences had realized it or not, part of the value of these movies was watching them in consideration of past entries and with the changing times, and in so doing they function in a way almost unique to motion pictures.
This time itinerant peddler Torajiro Kuruma, Tora-san (Kiyoshi Atsumi), is traveling around southern Japan, in Kyushu where at a small port town in Saga he meets the distressed young father of an infant boy. Tora-san takes pity on the man and invites him to his room for a drink. The next morning, however, the man is gone leaving the baby in Tora-san's dubious care.
He takes the baby home to Shibamata, in Tokyo, to the family sweets shop run by his Aunt (Chieko Misaki) and Uncle (Masami Shimojo), just as they and Tora-san's sister, Sakura (Chieko Baisho), her husband, Hiroshi (Gin Maeda), and the local priest (Chishu Ryu) wonder who will continue the Kuruma line and assume ownership of the sweets shop, Tora-ya, after Auntie and Uncle have passed away. When Tora-san shows up with the infant strapped to his back, his family (indeed, the entire neighborhood) assumes the worst.
With the infant sick and underweight, the family decides to take him to the same hospital where Hiroshi had been recently after injuring his hand. There's one problem though: at the hospital is a beautiful nurse, Kyoko (Yukiyo Toake), and they're worried that as soon as Tora-san sees her, he's going to fall in love again and create all manner of trouble - which is exactly what happens.
Tora-san's Lullaby is slightly below the series' very high average. It doesn't stand out all that much, though viewers more or less watching the series in order will probably still be delighted by it. Neither the idea of Tora-san begrudgingly caring for a baby and the misunderstanding created by his arrival in Shibamata, nor his instant attraction to the hard-working night nurse quite live up to their potential, but the film surprises in other ways.
Part of the story involves Tora-san and Sakura's visit to a local choir group, a leisure activity then very much in vogue in Japan. There they meet the disheveled, bearded and inarticulate choir master (Tsunehiko Kamijo, who in recent years has become a regular voice artist in Hayao Miyazaki's films); he also loves Kyoko, and the resolution to this has a nice emotional payoff.
Perhaps the best thing about the film is Aunt Tsune's motherly instinct toward the infant, and her bonding with a child everyone knows she won't ultimately be able to keep. The series' back story, that Sakura and Tora-san were adopted by their aunt and uncle as children makes it easy to forget that Aunt Tsune never had children of her own, and this is explored with much sensitivity.
Another factor becoming apparent to Japanese audiences watching the films when they were new, and Western world audiences catching up with them on DVD, is how much their very familiarity is a substantial part of their charm. Over the past 14 films, released over the course of five years, audiences have seen Sakura and Hiroshi married, and followed their son Mitsuo's growth from newborn to toddler. In this film Gozen-sama, the Buddhist priest played by Ozu's regular actor Chishu Ryu, is first heard but not seen, yet those following the series will probably immediately be able to tell whose voice it is, so familiar have these characters become.
There are other references to earlier entries, none sweeter than the bankbook Tora-san carries around with him: it's a savings account he opened long ago in Sakura's name, money he's saving on her behalf but which he often uses himself and which never gets much above $100 or so anyway. But his sincere gesture is touching nonetheless, and director/co-writer Yoji Yamada refers to it on and off throughout the run of the series.
The film is notable as the debut film of the third, final, and longest-running actor in the role of Tora-san's irascible Uncle Tatsuzo, Masami Shimojo, who died last year at 88. Shimojo's ojisan was less combative than predecessors Shin Morikawa and Tatsuo Matsumura had been, perhaps a deliberate attempt on the part of director Yoji Yamada to reflect the character's (and Tora-san's) advancing years. Certainly it wouldn't do to have a 45-year-old Tora-san and 60-something Uncle at each other's throats all the time.
Video & Audio
Tora-san's Lullaby is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen with a moderately cleaner image than the earliest Tora-san releases. Despite the inevitable Dolby Digital helicopter flyover at the beginning of all these things, the movie itself is mono, but clear and free of obvious distortion, and the English subtitles are pretty good. Chinese subs are also available.
The lone supplement is a skimpy director's biography and filmography (in both Chinese and English), repeated in the CD-shaped booklet included with the disc.
Those interested in Yoji Yamada's great series are advised to start at the beginning, with the unfortunately named Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp (Otoko wa tsuraiyo, 1969). Once seen, only the most hardened souls won't be hooked.
Note: This film follows Tora-san's Lovesick (1974), and is followed by Tora-san's Rise and Fall (1975).
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.