Tora-san Plays Cupid (1977), the 20th of 48 Tora-san movies, is another typically fine entry in the popular series. Released less than five months after Tora-san meets His Lordship, you'd think writers Yoji Yamada and Yoshitaka Asama would have been stricken with writer's block by now, but the films' strengths remain undiminished. Indeed, this was actually director Yamada's third feature that year, having also directed Asama's script of The Yellow Handkerchief (Shiawase no kiiroi hankachi) to great acclaim. This latest Tora-san finds the itinerant peddler (Kiyoshi Atsumi) uncharacteristically playing the role of matchmaker in a sweet love story featuring one of Japan's finest actresses.
Tora-san returns home to Tora-ya, his family's old-fashioned sweets shop in Shibamata, in Tokyo, only to find his room being rented out to a neighbor of sister Sakura (Chieko Baisho): power company lineman Ryosuke (Masatoshi Nakamura), known to everyone by his nickname, Mr. Watt. Recently besieged by peddlers, Tora-san's aunt (Chieko Misaki) and uncle (Masami Shimojo) instruct Ryosuke to display a "No Peddlers" sign in front of the shop, and of course the returning Tora-san takes this as a personal attack and almost at once Tora and Ryosuke are at each other's throats.
They eventually make up at a pachinko parlor, however, especially after Tora-san learns that shy, hulking Ryosuke is in love with a waitress, Sachiko (Shinobu Otake), whose restaurant he frequents daily. As Ryosuke is even clumsier and shier than Tora-san, the peddler takes the man under his wing, determined to bring the young lovers together. Naturally, Tora-san's advice only makes things worse, and matters are further complicated when Tora-san joins Ryosuke in his hometown of Hirado, near Nagasaki, and falls for Ryosuke's lonely sister, Fujiko (Shiho Fujimura).
Tora-san Plays Cupid (Otoko wa tsuraiyo - Torajiro ganbare!, or "It's Tough to Be a Man - Fight On, Torajiro!," 1977) is mostly just that: Tora-san trying to bring this cute couple together with disastrous advice that comes close to ruining any chance of a relationship. Ryosuke, for his part, is so inept and inarticulate that he almost doesn't need Tora-san's "help," though Sachiko so obviously adores him anyway that their future together seems inevitable. Nakamura had a plum supporting part in the offbeat blaxploitation/martial arts/spy thriller That Man Bolt (1973), an American production starring Fred Williamson, but doesn't seem to have had much of a film career beyond that.
Conversely, tiny Shinobu Otake (sometimes billed as Shinobu Ootake), who was barely 20 when this was made, quickly established herself as one of Japan's leading film and stage actresses. Her credits include The Gate of Youth (1975), The Incident (1978), Nomugi Pass (1979), Children of Nagasaki (1983), Yoji Yamada's Gakko III (1998), Poppoya: Railroad Man (1999), and more recently Yoshimitsu Morita's Like Asura (2003). She won Japanese Academy Awards for her work in The Incident and Poppoya, and has been nominated on numerous other occasions. (Western viewers may also recall her small but memorable role as a policewoman in The Demon.) She and Nakamura make an adorable, Mutt & Jeff-like couple in Tora-san Plays Cupid.
Shiho Fujimura was a more traditional movie actress, having come off a long career as a contract player at Daiei beginning in 1962, where she appeared in dozens of that studio's programmers, including several Zatoichi and Kyoshiro Nemuri films. She starred opposite Kojiro Hongo in Wrath of Daimajin (Daimajin ikaru, 1966), and essayed the title role in the company's 1968 adaptation of The Snow Woman (Kaidan yukionna). Unlike many actresses of her generation, Fujimura is still quite active in the industry.
As usual, Yamada makes excellent use of his growing stock company of players. In addition to regular support from Chishu Ryu (as the local Buddhist priest), Hisao Dazai (as the print-shop president next door), and others, newer regulars and semi-regulars such as Senri Sakurai (amusing here as a Catholic priest in Hirado) and Yoshio Yoshida (often the bad guy in the dream sequences that open each film) are given small but rewarding parts. The film also offers a hilarious running gag about a pet monkey that becomes the talk of Shibamata.
Ultimately, the film pays off in its third act, with a subtle act of cruelty that brings the film back down to earth. For a director so often accused of being sentimental (in the bad sense), Yamada's insistence on resolutions true to human nature are a key component of the series' success.
Video & Audio
Tora-san Play Cupid is presented in the usual non-anamorphic widescreen transfer (at about 2:1 from the 2.35:1 original) using inferior film elements to those used on the Japanese DVD. The audio is mono despite the Dolby Stereo declaration on the case, but at least it's clear of distortion, and the English subtitles are reasonably good. Optional Chinese subtitles are also available.
A skimpy director's biography and filmography (in both Chinese and English) is all that's offered here, repeated in the CD-shaped booklet included with the disc.
Tora-san Plays Cupid is another strong entry in the long running series, one not to be missed by its fans.
Note: This film follows Tora-san meets His Lordship (1977), and is followed by Tora-san's Stage-Struck (1978).
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.