Of the 48 "Tora-san" movies made between 1969 and 1995, Tora-san's Foster Daddy (Otoko wa tsuraiyo - Torajiro kamome uta, or "It's Tough to Be a Man - Torajiro's Song of the Seagull," 1980) definitely ranks somewhere in the top 15 or so of this almost always excellent film series. As Tora-san entered the 1980s, director and co-writer Yoji Yamada began making subtle and appropriate shifts to Tora-san's character while developments back in Tora-san's hometown neighborhood of Shibamata continue to act like a mirror for ordinary Japanese (and which now, seen in retrospect, play like nostalgia for a bygone age). Further, this film's interest in adult education / night school likewise anticipate one of Yamada's great latter-day successes, 1993's A Class to Remember (Gakko) and its sequels.
In this entry, itinerant peddler Tora-san (Kiyoshi Atsumi) returns home to his old-fashioned Tokyo neighborhood to discover that, after ten years of marriage his sister, Sakura (Chieko Baisho) and her husband, Hiroshi (Gin Maeda), have at last moved out of their cramped apartment - it was "as small as a submarine," Tora-san says - and into an almost-new house of their own. Deeply touched that Sakura has set aside one bedroom in the house for her brother, Tora-san borrows 20,000 yen (about $100 back then, a lot of money for the perennially-broke Torajiro) from Gen-chan (Gajiro Sato), Tora-san's dim-witted friend who works at the local temple, to present to the happy couple.
Predictably however, the ceremonial presentation of the generous gift quickly sours when Hiroshi's boss, "Octopus" (Hisao Dazai), jokingly checks to see if the bills are counterfeit. A free-for-all brawl erupts, and Tora-san is back on the road once again.
In Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, Tora-san learns that an old drinking buddy, Mizushima, has died. He takes a ferry to Okushiri Island to visit the man's grave and encounters Mizushima's bitter adult daughter, Sumire (Ran Ito). The man may have provided Tora-san with a good drinking buddy, but his alcoholism and abuse has left her life in shambles, especially as she was forced to drop out of school to care for him. When she expresses to Tora-san her desire to move to Tokyo and go to night school to finally earn her high school diploma, he provides her with the address of his family's sweets shop in Tokyo. However, she's nearly illiterate and can't even read the address. Appalled, Tora-san personally takes her under his wing back to Tokyo.
Despite that awful English title - it was first shown in the west as Foster Daddy, Tora!; a direct translation of the Japanese would have been wiser - this is a highly satisfying entry with much to recommend it. The film has a strong and very Japanese sense of community: we learn, for instance, that Sakura and Hiroshi are able to buy their home partly because Sakura and Tora-san's uncle (Masami Shimojo) has mortgaged Toraya, the family sweets shop, and "Octopus" has cosigned the loan. Later in the film, when Tora-san shows up with Sumire, Sakura and Hiroshi unhesitatingly offer to tutor her for the night school's entrance examination (Hiroshi and Sakura teach her math and English, respectively) while "Octopus" helps her get a job at a local convenience store (a 7-11, no less!).
Tora-san's essentially unromantic (if still obsessive) interest in Sumire is a welcome change from the doomed love affairs the character usually becomes embroiled in. That doesn't necessarily mean he avoids getting hurt, however, and this is handled with great intelligence by Yamada and co-writer Yoshitaka Asama.
Tora-san's Foster Daddy is, like the best entries, both funny and sweet, the latter never more so than the scene where Tora-san learns that a room has been set aside for him in Sakura and Hiroshi's new house. There's some very funny business involving Tora-san's suspicions at being asked to participate in the national census and, later, when a local policeman (series semi-regular Masakane Yonekura) sheepishly accuses Tora-san of kidnapping.
Ran Ito (or Itoh) was a pop star-turned-actress, having been part of a very successful trio known as The Candies (with Mami Fujimura and Yoshiko Tanaka; Tanaka later starred in Imamura's Black Rain). Ito is well-cast: her inexperience as an actress perhaps inadvertently is offset by the character's awkwardness and lack of confidence. In any case, she comes off quite well. Also in the cast is a very young Takehiro Murata (Minbo) as Sumire's ex-boyfriend, while Tatsuo Matsumura (the old professor in Madadayo and formerly Tora-san's uncle in several films) has a key supporting role and gives a very fine performance as a night school teacher.
Video & Audio
Tora-san's Foster Daddy is given the usual non-anamorphic widescreen treatment, cropped slightly at about 2:1 from the original 2.35:1 Panavision. The audio is mono Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. The English subtitles are stacked entirely within the image this time, allowing those with widescreen TVs the option of zooming the image in without loss of picture information or distortion. Oddly, the subtitles play as if they used a very good translator for the first half of the film, and an inept one for the second half of the picture. Optional Chinese subtitles are also available.
No surprises: the usual director's biography and filmography (in both Chinese and English), repeated in the CD-shaped booklet included with the disc.
Tora-san's Foster Daddy ranks pretty high in the Tora-san canon, but as much of the satisfaction is derived from a knowledge of the characters and their back stories, first-time viewers are strongly urged to sample this series from the beginning, with Tora-san Our Loveable Tramp (1969).
Note: This film follows Tora-san's Tropical Fever (1980), and is followed by Tora-san's Many-splintered Love (also known as Tora-san's Love in Osaka, 1981).
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.