Tora-san's Dream of Spring (Otoko wa tsuraiyo - Torajiro haru no yume, 1979), the 24th, or halfway point in the 48-film series, is a typically fine entry, and for western audiences bolstered enormously by American input both onscreen and off. Those reluctant to sample the series until now might want to take the plunge with this gaijin-friendly film, an alternately hilarious and bittersweet comedy that explores Japanese misconceptions of Americans, and vice versa.
It's fall again and, as usual, itinerant peddler Tora-san (Kiyoshi Atsumi) returns home to his family's Japanese sweets shop in Shibamata, where his aunt (Chieko Misaki), uncle (Masami Shimojo), sister Sakura (Chieko Baisho), her husband Hiroshi (Gin Maeda), and various friends and neighbors regard Tora-san's return with a mixture of happiness and trepidation. Predictably, Tora-san soon gets into a big argument with his family, especially after it becomes clear that Sakura and Hiroshi's young son, Mitsuo, can speak better English than the hopeless Tora-san. Frustrated, he leaves home once again.
Later, an American peddler, vitamin salesman Michael Jordan (Herb Edelman)**, wanders Shibatama looking for a cheap inn because the hotels downtown are far too expensive. He speaks almost no Japanese and none of the shop owners speak any English, creating much confusion until part-time translator Keiko (Kyoko Kagawa), who once lived in America, comes to his rescue. In the interest of "Japanese-American relations," local Buddhist priest Gozen-sama (Chishu Ryu) encourages Tora-san's aunt and uncle to let Michael use Tora-san's room.
Initially the family is leery and intimidated by gentle giant Michael (actor Edelman was quite tall, around six-five), bemused by his western ways. When Tora-san returns home, he's furious to learn that a hairy foreigner is living in his room. He regards Michael as some sort of inhuman beast ("Kaiju! Kaiju dayo!," he shouts) - until, that is, Keiko pays the family and Michael a visit. Then, with Tora-san once again in love, his dislike of Michael is set aside - for the time being.
Tora-san's Dream of Spring does an exceptionally fine job exploring Japanese phobias about Americans, and Americans' frequent misunderstandings about Japanese behavior. Director and co-writer Yoji Yamada collaborated with Leonard Schrader, whose credits include Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985, directed by brother Paul Schrader) and Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), as well as the superb Japanese film The Man Who Stole the Sun (1980).*** One can easily imagine Schrader and Yamada putting together a laundry list of potential topics to explore; those selected for the final film are dead-on and frequently hilarious. Beyond the obvious physical problems, such as Michael trying to squeeze his gargantuan feet into tiny Japanese house slippers, the script explores American frankness and public expressions of affection, major no-nos in Japanese culture. Conversely, the family is won over by Michael's sweet nature; he says "thank you" all the time and acts gentlemanly toward Sakura and Aunt Tsune, the kind of consideration that's rare from Japanese men.
Herb Edelman's "American Tora-san" is so endearing it's a great shame the character never came back to Japan for another visit. Edelman himself adored the "Tora-san" movies and apparently fell in love with Japan, returning whenever he had the chance. It's interesting to watch his performance, which is very good by Hollywood standards (Edelman was one of its most reliable character actors) but also adjusted for the Japanese style of movie acting, which plays scenes a bit "bigger" than is normal for American movies. In a sadly ironic twist, Edelman like Atsumi died relatively young, exactly 14 days of one another in the summer of 1996.
Adding to the film's appeal for American viewers is its supporting cast, from the great actress Kyoko Kagawa, whose credits include Naruse's Mother (1952), Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff (1954), and Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well (1960), to prolific character actor Taiji Tonoyama, who has a fun cameo as man inconvenienced when Michael sits in front of him, blocking his view, at a flea-bitten stage performance of Madame Butterfly. Hiroko Hayashi, who plays Keiko's English teacher daughter, was at the time married to Kurosawa's son, Hisao, and fans of Japanese cinema will instantly recognize Chishu Ryu from his many films with director Yasujiro Ozu.
Video & Audio
Tora-san's Dream of Spring is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen and, like all of Panorama's DVDs, fall into the better-than-nothing category until something better comes along, if something ever does. The audio is mono but clear of distortion, and the English subtitles are vastly improved from the earliest entries. 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.
Those curious but hesitant about sampling this fine series are advised to either start here or with the first film, the unfortunately named Tora-san, Our Loveable Tramp (Otoko wa tsuraiyo, 1969). Once seen, you'll likely be hooked.
Note: This film follows Tora-san the Matchmaker (1979), and is followed by Tora-san's Tropical Fever (1980).
**The name of Edelman's character is presumably coincidental, as the future NBA star was still a long way from becoming a household name.
***Sergei Hasenecz notes this reviewer's failure to mention another underrated Schrader script, The Yakuza (1975): "It's based on a story by Leonard Schrader (from his novel, I think), and Herb Edelman appears as an American professor living and teaching in Tokyo. One of the movie's main concerns is the contrast between US and Japanese cultures, and there is constant reference to and discussion of this."
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.