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Tora-san 09: Tora-san's Dear Old Home
A typically fine comedy-drama from director co-writer Yoji Yamada (Twilight Samurai), Tora-san's Dear Old Home (Otoko wa tsuraiyo - Shibamata bojo, or "It's Tough Being a Man - Shibamata Longing," 1972) is the ninth installment of the long-running (48 feature films) Tora-san film series. These movies, whose leading character has been favorably likened to Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp, have long been an icon of Japanese popular culture since their debut in 1969, but remain largely unknown outside Asia. Panorama Entertainment, a Hong Kong-based DVD label, has been issuing the films in sequence for a few years now, and while their transfers leave a lot to be desired (see below) at present theirs are the only versions with English subtitles. The films are definitely worth it, however, though interested viewers are strongly advised to start at the beginning, with Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp (Otoko wa tsuraiyo, 1969).
For those unfamiliar with the series, a little background is in order: Produced by Japan's Shochiku Studios, "Tora-san" holds the World's Record as the longest-running film series. Some 48 full-length features were made between 1969 and 1995, with nearly the same crew and cast for its entire run, and ending only with the death of its star, the irreplaceable Kiyoshi Atsumi.
Atsumi's bumbling, lovesick Tora-san, is an itinerant peddler and the black sheep of his family. He is both worldly and naive, uneducated yet pure, and his wayward life is both the envy of his family and the source of great embarrassment. Tora-san infrequently returns home to Shibamata, in Tokyo, where his sister, Sakura (Chieko Baisho), aunt (Chieko Misaki) and uncle (Shin Morikawa, and in the later films Tatsuo Matsumura and, later still, Masami Shimojo) run an old-fashioned Japanese sweets shop. In the first "Tora-san," Sakura marries Hiroshi Suwa (Gin Maeda), who works at the print shop next door, operated by Umetaro (Hisao Dazai), nicknamed "Octopus."
In every film, Tora-san's visits are met with happy emotion and enormous tension. In each film he falls in love with a beautiful woman (known as "Madonnas" in Japan) who's simply out of Tora-san's league. Sometimes they fall in love with him, too, but a lasting love is not in the cards for Tora-san, who like Chaplin's Little Tramp ultimately must make his way through the life alone.
The series quickly became as much a part of Japanese culture as sushi and Kabuki. "Tora-san" movies were for years a staple of the New Year's holiday and remain perennial sellers on DVD and are frequently shown on television. For the several generations that grew older alongside Tora-san's family, the series remains an indelible part of their lives.
In Tora-san's Dear Old Home, the peddler's travels take him to Fukui, where he meets three young women on their yearly vacation. Initially, Tora-san makes like a big shot, but eventually lets down his guard and eventually joins the women as they visit the beach, explore caves and whatnot. The women, who had been having a faintly miserable time until they met Tora-san, are sorry to see their vacation end, and the loneliest of them, Utako (Sayuri Yoshinaga), goes to visit Tora-san and his family when she returns to Tokyo.
Unhappily bound to her divorced and aging writer father (Seiji Miyaguchi, the master swordsman in Seven Samurai), Utako secretly longs to pack up and marry a potter who lives far away in rural Japan, but Tora-san mistakenly believes she has fallen in love with him.
This eighth sequel is a typically fine early entry in the series' run, made at a time when Yamada and co-writer Yoshitaka Asama were stretching and exploring the limits of their characters, and when the films were becoming popular enough to draw talent as big as actress Sayuri Yoshinaga. The former Nikkatsu star had been phenomenally popular, with a screen presence rather like the early, teenage career of Elizabeth Taylor. Certainly one of the most (traditionally) beautiful Japanese movie stars ever, Yoshinaga makes a formidable contrast with the potato-faced Atsumi.**
What stands out in this particular Tora-san is Yamada's great understanding of fleeting friendships one makes while traveling, and the thoughts that occupy one's mind while on the road. As Tora-san befriends Utako and her friends, his relationship to them and theirs to him is very real, as is the girls' late night chat about their previous trips, and Utako's nostalgia for a simple family outing from her youth. Yamada's camera lingers on little details, especially the sadness of departing trains and the pain of saying goodbye.
The film, as usual with the series, is also very funny at times. Tora-san's outrage upon learning his aunt and uncle have put his room up for rent (they're trying to raise money so Sakura and Hiroshi can build their own house) is quite funny, as is his determination to find other lodgings.
The rest of the cast - Chieko Baisho, Gin Maeda, Chieko Misami, Hisao Dazai - is uniformly excellent. Shin Morikawa, who played Tora-san's long-suffering uncle in the first eight films, died before this was released; his part is played by Tatsuo Matsumura, who later starred as the old professor in Akira Kurosawa's Madadayo. It's a bit strange to see another actor in the part, but Matsumura fills Morikawa's shoes well enough. Longtime Ozu actor Chishu Ryu (Tokyo Story) makes his usual appearance as the local Buddhist priest in one especially funny scene.
Video & Audio
This is a weird one. Although English subtitles of Asian movies are sometimes famously inept (e.g., "If you've gut, shoot at me!"), Tora-san's Dear Old Home has an especially bizarre and unforgivable subtitling snafu that, if the film weren't as good as it is, would make it unwatchable. Apparently the label acquired English text from The Japan Foundation, a fine organization. However, somebody screwed up big-time encoding the subtitles onto the disc. For example, three subtitles that should read:
1. "There are some things one shouldn't say."
2. "Sure, our house will be cheaply constructed."
3. "A little breeze might blow it down."
...instead reads like this:
1. "There are some things one shouldn't"
2. "Sure, our house will be cheaply say."
3. "A little breeze might blow it down constructed."
After 20 minutes of this Beckettian dialogue, I finally realized the problem. Subtitles two lines tall were reversed, and the dialogue only made sense when read from the bottom-up. None of Panorama's previous Tora-sans had this problem, but boy, oh boy this one sure does. Once the problem was recognized, it still took several more minutes to adjust one's eyes to read bottom-to-top. All-in-all, it was nearly a movie-ruining experience. (Two words, Panorama: Quality Control) Chinese subtitles are also available.
The rest of the presentation, as usual with Panorama, is unexceptional. The original Shochiku GrandScope photography (i.e., 2.35:1 CinemaScope) is presented in non-anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen, using a worn print with its share of scratches. Shochiku has beautiful (but not subtitled) 16:9 transfers of all 48 Tora-san's on DVD in Japan, but apparently will not allow foreign licensors of their films access to these masters, at least not without paying exorbitant access fees. This is apparently also the case with Empire Picture's Region 1 release of Twilight Samurai, which has a gorgeous 16:9 transfer in Japan. Read here for Matthew Millheiser's glowing review of the film, less-than-glowing review of the transfer.
Panorama claims the disc is in stereo and the ever-present Dolby Digital flyover precedes the movie, but Tora-san's Dear Old Home is and always was mono.
Common with Panorama's Shochiku titles, extras are limited to a director's biography and filmography (in both Chinese and English), both repeated in the CD-shaped booklet included with the disc.
Shochiku has long maintained the attitude that Western audiences will never truly appreciate the Tora-san movies. Like Ozu's films, they claim, Westerners can never understand movies so intensely "Japanese." Such beliefs are hogwash, of course. Everyone westerner this viewer has encountered who has seen a Tora-san movie inevitably likes it, specifically due to its universal themes of family and love relationships. Now, with Panorama working its way through the series, they can at last be experienced around the world. But fix the subtitles, huh?
(For those keeping score, the next film in the series is Tora-san's Dream Come True.)
** and at age 59 she still is extraordinarily beautiful. Her new movie is Year One in the North.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.