A decidedly lesser entry in the long-running, 48-film "Tora-san" series, Tora-san's Stage-Struck (Otoko wa tsuraiyo - Torajiro wagamichi wo yuku, or "It's Tough to Be a Man - Torajiro Going My Way," 1978) has weaker characterizations than usual and familiar situations done better before. In its defense it also offers a singularly vivid glimpse into late-'70s Japanese popular culture, and for this alone the picture is worth a look.
This time itinerant peddler Tora-san (Kiyoshi Atsumi) returns home to Tora-ya, the family's traditional sweets shop in Shibamata, in Tokyo, to find his uncle (Masami Shimojo) slowly recovering from a grave (but curiously unidentified) illness. Tora-san surprises everyone, including loving sister Sakura (Chieko Baisho), Aunt Tsune (Chieko Misaki), and Sakura's husband, Hiroshi (Gin Maeda), by presenting Uncle Tatsuzo with a traditional, mostly symbolic gift of "sympathy money," and this act of kindness moves the uncle to tears. (In a nice and often-referenced touch, Tora-san's terrible penmanship on the ornately-decorated envelope is glimpsed, revealing that he's barely literate.)
Soon enough, however, a big fight erupts and Tora-san heads to a small town near Nagasaki, where he finds a "disciple" in Tomekichi (Tetsuya Takeda), a rather dense and lovesick man who turns to Tora-san for advice in matters of the heart. Tora-san, meanwhile, wracks up a hotel bill he cannot pay, and Sakura has to bail him out.
They return to Shibamata, where a contrite Tora-san goes to work at Tora-ya and later falls in love with Nanako (Nana Kinomi), an old friend of Sakura's and now a star, albeit an aging one, at the Shochiku Girls Opera Company (Shochiku Kagekidan, or SKD), a kind of Japanese Rockettes. Tora-san attends a performance and is utterly transfixed. "It was so glorious it made me weep!" he exclaims. (Note: This is the same troupe whose star won Marlon Brando's heart in Sayonara.) When Tomekichi comes to Tokyo to visit, the pair begin going to the theater every day, and Tomekichi likewise falls for one of the performers.
Tora-san's Stage-Struck (also known as Stage-Struck Tora-san, a better and less awkward title) works best as a time capsule of late-'70s fads and as an inside look at the daily grind and deliriously tacky appeal of the SKD's colorful stage shows. The film opens with a very funny spoof of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a dream sequence with Shibamata visited by a UFO (shaped like Tora-san's hat), and there are several references to Pink Lady, the singing duo hugely popular at the time - Gen-chan (Gajiro Sato) can be seen in the background practicing Pink Lady's dance moves with some schoolgirls, a national craze at the time.
Characters talk about the country's then-crippling financial depression, and the footage in and around the Asakusa Kokusai Theater is quite fascinating. Director / co-writer Yoji Yamada paints a realistic portrait of Nanako's grueling but rewarding life on the stage, even if it is something of a show business cliche. Her crisis, torn between a man who wants to marry her and a desire to continue performing even as she approaches retirement age (she's about thirty, the outer rim of SKD performers), is realistic and fairly interesting.
Much less successful is the character of Tomekichi. Masatoshi Nakamura had played a very similar yet far more realistic character in the film immediately before this, Tora-san Plays Cupid, and the part seems to have been created so that director Yamada could work again with Tetsuya Takeda, the star of Yamada's acclaimed The Yellow Handkerchief (1977). Takeda, best known as beloved high school teacher Kinpachi Sakamoto in the long-running San-nen B-gumi Kinpachi sensei (1979-present), is definitely an acquired taste. His broad mugging endeared him to Japanese audiences but this only comes across as shameless overacting by western standards.
Video & Audio
Tora-san's Stage-Struck is presented in the usual non-anamorphic widescreen transfer (at about 1.85:1 from the 2.35:1 original), though it's perfectly watchable. The audio is mono despite the Dolby Stereo declaration on the case (and inevitable helicopter flyover), but clear of distortion, and the English subtitles are fairly 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's Stage-Struck will appeal mainly to fans of the series and those interested in Japanese daily life circa 1978. It's far from the series' best, but even a lesser Tora-san is still pretty good. Recommended.
Note: This film follows Tora-san Plays Cupid (1977), and is followed by Tora-san's Talk of the Town (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.