The 12th film in the long-running, 48-film "Tora-san" film series, Tora-san Loves an Artist (Otoko wa tsuraiyo - Watashi no Tora-san, or "It's Tough to Be a Man - My Tora-san," 1973) breaks slightly from the established formula in interesting ways, while offering one of its loveliest "Madonnas" (the Japanese name for all the women itinerant peddler Tora-san falls in love with, film after film): the talented and beautiful actress Keiko Kishi.
At Tora-ya, the family's Japanese sweets shop in the old-fashioned Shibamata section of Tokyo, Tora-san's sister, Sakura (Chieko Baisho), their aunt (Cheiko Misaki), Uncle (Tatsuo Matsumura), and Sakura's husband, Hiroshi (Gin Maeda), are preparing for a four-day trip to Kyushu (in southwestern Japan). Sakura is taking her auntie and uncle on the all-expenses-paid vacation in appreciation for their years of kindness caring for her and Tora-san after their parents had died. Just hours before their flight, Tora-san (Kiyoshi Atsumi) shows up.
Though initially he's hurt and feels left out, he begrudgingly agrees to watch the shop with the help of Umetaro (Hisao Dazai), the owner of the printing shop next door and Hiroshi's boss. In Kyushu, the family initially has a great time, but Tora-san's increasingly irritable mood at home, expressed in rambling and expensive long-distance phone calls, soon drives them to distraction.
Later on, Tora-san is reunited with an elementary school chum, Fumihiko Yanagi (Takehiro Maeda), now a successful television writer. (Tora-san's nickname for him is "Protruding Navel"; some things just don't translate well.) They visit Fumihiko's sister, Ritsuko (Keiko Kishi), whom Tora-san had teased mercilessly years ago. Now a struggling artist, Tora-san of course soon falls in love with her.
Tora-san Loves an Artist is a solid if episodic entry in this wonderful film series. As with many of the earlier films, it almost breaks down into two mini-movies running about 52 minutes apiece, though co-screenwriter Yoshitaka Asama and co-writer/director Yoji Yamada nicely foreshadow the film's second-half in little ways.
The first half's main appeal is that it flip-flops audience's expectations: Instead of Tora-san arriving home, getting into a fight with his family, and then follow him as he journeys to another part of Japan, he is stuck at home while the rest of the family goes on vacation. The novelty of Uncle Tatsuzo and Aunt Tsune wandering around Mt. Aso and other travel destinations is a novelty all by itself. (And director Yamada only partially succeeds in hiding the wide-eyed tourists in the background gaping at the beloved actors on location.)
More significantly, these scenes capture a charming facet of Japanese life that's now pretty much a thing of the past. Like many of their generation, Auntie and Uncle worked so hard all their lives that they almost never left the confines of Tokyo, and had never traveled to the western part of Japan at all. They had never ridden in an airplane, either, and their sense of wonder experiencing this for the first time is quite charming.
The second-half story involving Tora-san's would-be love affair with Ritsuko is also interesting. When they meet, she's initially furious at him because he's messed up one of her paintings, so it takes a while for them to warm up to one another. Later, when the inevitable rejection comes, Ritsuko is surprisingly expressive and direct about her feelings, also unusual.
The film is alternately sweet and touching, funny and biting. Tora-san's efforts to welcome back the family upon their return from Kyushu do not go unnoticed by Sakura in one sweet scene, while a visit to a monkey park leads to very funny comparisons of a rogue monkey to the hapless Tora-san. "Better not go near him, he's warped!" someone says.
Around this time especially, the "Tora-san" movies boasted some of the biggest female stars in Japanese cinema. It seemed that every famous actress was eager to play Tora-san's next great love, and around this time his "Madonnas" included such stellar names as Sayuri Yoshinaga, Kaoru Yachigusa, Ruriko Asaoka, Junko Ikeuchi, and Machiko Kyo, to name but a few. Kishi, whose credits include Ozu's Early Spring (1956), Toyoda's Snow Country (1957), Ichikawa's Ten Black Women (1961), Kobayashi's Kwaidan (as the Snow Woman, 1964), and Gosha's Hunter in the Dark (1979), occasionally appeared in international productions, including Who Are You, Mr. Sorge? (1961), directed by her then-husband, Yves Ciampi, Rififi in Tokyo (1962), and the quite good The Yakuza (1975), in which she starred opposite Robert Mitchum. In 2002 she won a well-deserved Japanese Academy Award for the title role in Kon Ichikawa's Kah-chan (2001), in which she gave a delightful performance as a stern but loving matriarch.
Sharp-eyed viewers will also note an early screen appearance from actor Masahiko Tsugawa, as a man Tora-san mistakes for Ritsuko's boyfriend. The prolific actor is probably best known as a member of the late Juzo Itami's stock company, starring opposite Nobuko Miyamoto in several of his films.
Video & Audio
Tora-san Loves an Artist is presented in the usual non-anamorphic widescreen transfer using film elements that look like they've been around. Still, better that than nothing. The audio is mono despite the Dolby Stereo declaration on the case, but clear of distortion, and the English subtitles are fairly good. Optional Chinese subtitles are also available.
As usual, 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.
Fans of the series will not be disappointed by this funny and sweet entry, and will enjoy Kiyoshi Atsumi's scenes with Keiko Kishi.
Note: This film follows Tora-san's Forget-Me-Not (1973), and is followed by Tora-san's Lovesick (1974).
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.