On the heels of the excellent Tora-san's Sunrise and Sunset (1976), Tora-san's Heart of Gold (Otoko wa tsuraiyo - Torajiro Junjoshishu, or "It's Tough to Be a Man - Torajiro's Pure Book of Poetry," 1976)** is something of a disappointment. It's much more sentimental than its predecessor and its story structure is a bit off, with a key scene botched because of one placed earlier in the narrative. Nevertheless, the film still placed sixth on the top-grossing domestic releases in Japan for 1977, and for western viewers it offers the rare chance to see Machiko Kyo, the star of Rashomon, Ugetsu, and Street of Shame, as Tora-san's love interest. Though she continued acting onstage and in Japanese television dramas, this was her penultimate film.
The film opens with Tora-san (Kiyoshi Atsumi) arriving home in Shibamata, at the family's sweets shop in Tokyo, just as his sister Sakura (Chieko Baisho) and her husband, Hiroshi (Gin Maeda), are visited by their son's substitute teacher, 20-something Masako Yagyu (Fumi Dan). Of course Tora-san instantly falls for the pretty young woman. As his embarrassed family looks on, Tora-san completely usurps the meeting away from Sakura and Hiroshi, chatting away and trying to charm the teacher, even to the point of walking her home. Hiroshi is especially incensed; he's deeply concerned about his son Mitsuo's future (he wants him to go to college, something print-shop worker Hiroshi was never able to do), and really wanted to talk with her.
Sakura, equally upset but more forgiving, argues that he embarrassed everyone by chasing after Masako, a woman half his age. No one would've complained, she argues, if it had been Masako's mother. Naturally, at that very moment, who should arrive by the teacher's ailing mother, the beautiful Aya Yagyu (Machiko Kyo), a lonely divorcee whose former husband was a wealthy postwar blackmarketeer.
This 18th Tora-san film's main assets are the scenes between Atsumi and Kyo, which are sentimental in a way the series rarely ever was - Mild Spoiler: Masako reveals to Sakura but not Tora-san or Aya that her mother is terminally ill - but which nonetheless are extremely well acted. Aya is eccentric because she spent years as a wealthy housewife who never worked, then endured three long years in a hospital with little contact with the outside world. In one telling scene her daughter teases her because she has absolutely no concept of the cost of everyday items.
Though she in her expensive kimono contrasts sharply with Tora-san in his loud and overly-casual peddler get-up, her eccentricities make her somehow compatible with Tora-san in ways that are different from his other past loves. Director and co-writer Yoji Yamada doesn't quite seem to know what to do with these characters once he brings them together, but the results are interesting if not entirely successful.
The film is oddly structured. Yamada introduces Aya in a brief scene of her being released from the hospital, curiously robbing viewers of the surprise when she finally appears at Tora-ya, the sweets shop (after Sakura's ill-fated scolding of Tora-san, that is). The film is padded with another subplot that feels tacked on, involving Tora-san's relationship with a small, old-fashioned troupe of touring actors (Yoshio Yoshida and Mari Okamoto among them) like the ones in Ozu's Floating Weeds. Okamoto here is reprising a character she had played in Tora-san's Dream-Come True, though few will remember it.
Yamada's script (written with usual collaborator Yoshitaka Asama) is clearly interested in people playing roles. Beside the acting troupe (in which Tora-san "acts" the role of wealthy sensei), Tora-san disrupts the production of a television drama whose actors he trips up while on location in Shibamata. And, of course, those aware of Aya's failing health put on an act to keep her spirits up during her final illness.
And despite its shortcomings, the film is often quite funny. The Yagyus are Christians, creating some confusion when they visit Tora-ya. There's also a nice running gag involving Gozen-sama (Chishu Ryu), the local Buddhist priest.
Video & Audio
As usual, Tora-san's Heart of Gold is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen with the so-so image consumers have become accustomed if not especially happy with Panorama's DVDs. The mono audio is okay, but the English subtitles are steadily improving. Optional Chinese subtitles are also available.
The only extra, also as usual, is a skimpy director's biography and filmography (in both Chinese and English), repeated in the CD-shaped booklet included with the disc.
It's far from the best of the long-running film series, but Tora-san's Heart of Gold has its moments, and fans of these films will want to catch it if only to enjoy seminal film actress Machiko Kyo in one of her last film roles.
Note: This film follows Tora-san's Sunrise and Sunset (1976), and is followed by Tora-san Meets His Lordship (1977).
**The film also saw limited release in the United States under the title Tora's Pure Love.
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.