Director and co-writer Yoji Yamada reportedly considers Tora-san's Tropical Fever (Otoko wa tsuraiyo - Torajiro haibisukasu no hana, or "It's Tough to Be a Man - Torajiro's Hibiscus Flower," 1980) his personal favorite among the 48 Tora-san movies. It's easy to see why: the film brings back the most enduring of Tora-san's ill-fated girlfriends, cabaret singer Lily Matsuoka (Ruriko Asaoka) and explores their relationship with a depth unseen in any Tora-san film to date, plus it makes excellent use of its setting, the southernmost island of Okinawa, the kind of extraordinarily beautiful but economically depressed environment that so fascinates the director.
Making a delivery to a seedy snack bar part of Tokyo, Tora-san's brother-in-law Hiroshi (Gin Maeda) runs into Lily (Asaoka), the beautiful but not-very-good singer in love with Tora-san. (Tora-san first met Lily in 1973's Tora-san's Forget-Me-Not and again in 1975's Tora-san's Rise and Fall.) Hiroshi invites Lily to the family's Japanese sweets shop in Shibamata for dinner, but she begs off - she misses them but is reluctant to accept their pity for her.
One month later Tora-san (Kiyoshi Atsumi), the itinerant peddler and black sheep of the Kuruma family, returns home just as a special delivery letter arrives from Lily. Touring the downtrodden cabaret scene in Okinawa, Lily is seriously ill in hospital and asks to see Tora-san. Faced with an agonizing three-day by train and ship-ride to the island, Tora-san's sister, Sakura (Chieko Baisho), buys him a plane ticket so that he can be there in a matter of hours.
Though Tora-san almost refuses to board the plane, his first flight ever, because he's terrified of flying he's eventually coaxed aboard by some JAL stewardesses and makes his way to the hospital in Okinawa where he's reunited with Lily and begins nursing her back to health.
Tora-san's Tropical Fever is a delight in every respect: it's funny, sad, and perceptive about human nature and even finds time to make a few unobtrusive jabs at the still controversial U.S. military presence in Okinawa. (Swooping jet fighters spoil the scenery, while later Tora-san urges Lily not to waste her talent "singing for drunken American soldiers.") This and Tora-san's Dream of Spring (1979) ranked seventh and eighth, respectively, on the list of the top-grossing Japanese films of 1980, while Yamada's third film that year, A Distant Cry from Spring (Haruka naru yama no yobigoe) ranked fifth on Kinema Jumpo's Best 10 list, just behind Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha and Seijun Suzuki's Zigeunerweisen. That film, combined with her work in the Tora-san films earned Chieko Baisho much recognition that year, including the Japanese Academy Award, and Yamada won for his screenplay to both films. (Kiyoshi Atsumi was nominated, but lost to another Yamada-directed performance, Ken Takakura in A Distant Cry from Spring.)
(Mild Spoilers) Tora-san's Tropical Fever exemplifies Yamada's contention that the Tora-san comedies are really tragedies. As already made clear in their previous encounters (and again in their last reunion, 1995's Tora-san to the Rescue, the final film of the series), Tora-san and Lily are very much alike and obviously in love with one another and yet can never enjoy a lasting relationship. He's too irresponsible and childish while she's bitter about her lot in life and perhaps unable to trust any man after so many disappointments.
And yet their fleeting happiness together is one of the series' great joys. Their reunion is genuinely moving, and his care for her in the hospital is funny and sweet; his doting on her and cheerful disposition extends to the other patients in the ward and their caregivers who envy the attention he gives her. The gradual deterioration of their relationship upon her recovery is heartbreaking but true to human nature, while the climax of the film, a reunion between Tora-san and Lily at Toraya, offers a big and quite touching surprise.
The film is also very, very funny. Rushing into the hospital, Tora-san mistakes a sick old woman for his beloved Lily: "You're wrinkled all over," he says, distraught, "beyond recognition." When Tora-san balks at riding in a plane without propellers, Hiroshi tries to explain that jets work by forcing air through their engines, but Tora-san is not convinced: "Ridiculous! You think by farting you can fly!?"
But as is often the case, some of the best humor comes from Tora-san's fish-out-of-water encounters while on the road and for many Japanese, Tora-san especially, Okinawa is almost like a foreign country. (Some of the Okinawan dialect goes untranslated.) He finds the summer heat especially crippling, and many laughs are derived from his vain efforts to stay cool, at one point hiding behind the thin shadow of a telephone pole.
Video & Audio
Tora-san's Tropical is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen trimmed slightly from its original Panavision to about 2:1. Like all of Panorama's DVDs, it falls into the better-than-nothing category until something better comes along, if something ever does. One note: Shochiku theatrically released a Special Edition version of Tora-san's Tropical Fever to theaters in 1997. That version apparently used computer graphics to add Hidetaka Yoshioka (who played Tora-san's nephew in the later films) to the story in added scenes. This reviewer hasn't seen this version, but in any case this DVD is the 1980 cut only.* The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio sounds like standard mono but is clear of distortion, and the English subtitles are adequate. 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.
Tora-san's Tropical Fever is one of the best of the series, and a must for fans.
Note: This film follows Tora-san's Dream of Spring (1979), and is followed by Foster Daddy, Tora! (1980).
* Update: 'Tora-san's Tropical Fever: Special Edition' Features a new opening with Mitsuo (Hidetaka Yoshioka in these scenes) now on the road as a salesman for a shoe company. Though filmed after Atsumi's death, in this 1997 release Tora-san is still alive, and Mitsuo wonders where he is. Briefly, he imagines seeing his uncle on a train platform (a CGI effect), and later recalls Tora-san's relationship with Lily, beginning with her earlier appearances in the series, followed by the movie proper. It has been remixed to Dolby Digital Stereo, and its title song is performed not by Atsumi but by Aki Yashiro. (It's a lovely rendition, but jarring to hear someone else sing it.) The film ends and the story returns to Mitsuo, as he arrives home in Shibamata, briefly passing Tora-ya, and two workers who appeared in the last few entries. The End.
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.