Itinerant peddler Tora-san (Kiyoshi Atsumi) returns home to Tora-ya, the family's Japanese sweets shop in the old-fashioned Shibamata section of Tokyo. As usual, the happy reunion is short-lived - unbeknownst to Tora-san, the family has been taking care of a stray dog they've named "Tora," and this leads to all kind of confusion when family and neighbors wander in saying things like, "Tora! I told you not to go to the toilet there." This soon leads to a fight with his aunt (Chieko Misaki), uncle (Masami Shimojo), and "Octopus" (Hisao Dazai), the owner of the print shop next-door, and (the human) Tora-san is soon on the road once again.
He travels to Shikoku where he's kind to a lonely traveler (Kyoko Maya) and later meets an eccentric old man, Hisamune Toda (Kanjuro Arashi), who acts like a dignified daimyo out of Feudal Japan. As it turns out, he is a wealthy and direct descendant of Lord Muneyasu and the Iyo Oshu Clan and comparable to a British Lord. Toda's chief retainer (Norihei Miki) thinks Tora-san is trying to take advantage of the old man, but Tora-san's genuine unpretentiousness only charms Toda, a sort of George Burns crossed with Toshiro Mifune.
Toda eventually charges Tora-san with the task of finding an estranged daughter-in-law, Mariko, that he disowned years before but now wants to reconcile and spend his last days with now that his youngest son, Mariko's husband, is deceased. Tora-san has precious little to go on: all he knows is that the woman lives in Tokyo.
Tora-san meets His Lordship is the usual fine blend of comedy and drama, with Toda rather cuddly as the frail but proud and dignified lord, and scenes with Tora-san's family struggling to address him with the proper royal etiquette are quite funny, as is the business with Tora the Dog. (There's also a very funny bit that Japanophiles will recognize as a parody of Chushingura.)
The eventual and surprising reunion and its aftermath between aged father and skittish daughter-in-law is emotionally powerful and ultimately honest, even though it's prompted by the kind of outrageous coincidence that is common in Tora-san movies but never in real life.**
The unusually good "guest cast" covers a wide spread of Japanese talent. Kanjuro Arashi appeared in well over 300 feature films going back at least to 1927, and was a huge pre-war star, top-billed in nearly a dozen movies every year. By the 1950s he remained busy but in lesser character roles, and in mostly program pictures though he did have a good role in Shohei Imamura's Kuragejima / The Profound Desire of the Gods (Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo, 1968). But by the 1970s Arashi was getting old and limited to underworld patriarch types in films like Zatoichi meets Yojimbo (1970); this was surely Arashi's best late-period role. He died in 1980.
Norihei Miki was one of the most popular postwar comedians and co-starred with Hisaya Morishige in two long-running Toho series, "Company President" (Shacho) and "In Front of the Train Station" (Ekimae). Akihiko Hirata, another Toho player and one of the very few still under long-term contract to the studio in 1977, turns up here as the eldest son of the old man. Japanese fantasy film films will remember Hirata as the eye patch-wearing scientist in the original Godzilla (Gojira, 1954). Akira Terao, the star of several late-period Kurosawa films, makes a fleeting cameo appearance.
Video & Audio
Tora-san meets His Lordship is presented in the usual non-anamorphic widescreen transfer using film elements that look like they've been around the block a couple of times. 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.
For fans of this great series, Tora-san meets His Lordship will not disappoint. Others stumbling upon it might want to give it a try.
** Or is it? My wife and I got married in 2001 on the extremely remote and sparsely populated Japanese island of Amami Oshima, which is about halfway between Kagoshima and Okinawa. For reasons I won't go into we considered inviting director Yoji Yamada to the ceremony as its requisite Guest of Honor. Ultimately we decided against asking him to travel to such a faraway corner of Japan, but the day after the wedding we drove to the other side of the island – and ran smack into Yoji Yamada, who was on the island to deliver a lecture. It was a chance meeting straight out of one of the Tora-san movies.
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.