Tora-san Meets His Lordship (Japan, 1977) [Japan Society]

The first film in the Tora-san series, It’s Tough Being a Man (1969), became a reality thanks to writer/director Yoji Yamada’s vision and persistence against skeptical studio execs and the disappointing TV series that preceded it. It was a gamble that paid off. Despite a few imperfections, It’s Tough Being a Man became a tremendous success and set the stage for one of the most successful film series in the history of Japanese cinema. Tora-san Meets His Lordship is the result of 8 years and 18 films worth of experience on behalf of the cast and crew. In this 19th installment, Tora-san returns to the silver screen stronger and more confident than ever before, contributing another worthy addition to the beloved series.

In Tora-san Meets His Lordship, Torajiro (Kiyoshi Atsumi) returns home after six months only to find that the respect he commands among his family members is not quite what he hoped it to be. He becomes livid when he finds out that his aunt and uncle have named their new dog “Tora” and leaves the house once more. Tora-san runs off to the town of Ozu in Shikoku island where he tries to peddle off his knockoff shoes to tourists. While lamenting about his lack of profits, Tora-san stumbles upon Hisamune Todo (Kanjuro Arashi), a peculiar old man who is later revealed to be the 16th Lord of Ozu. Impressed by Tora-san’s kindness and generosity, the Lord invites Tora-san to his palace.

In the palace, his Lordship is quite impressed with Tora-san and asks him for a favor. He wants to meet the widow of his deceased son, Mariko (of whose marriage he did not approve), hoping to make up for lost time. Tora-san agrees to help, though he is not sure if he can find her among the millions that live in Tokyo. Purely by coincidence, Mariko (Kyoko Maya) turns out to be a woman whom Tora-san had already met before. In the most emotional scene of the film, Lord Todo finally meets Mariko and thanks her for all the love and care she gave to his son. Accepting that she is still young and should remarry, Lord Todo wishes for Tora-san to be Mariko’s new husband. The prospect pleases Tora-san, who has fallen in love with Mariko. Unfortunately, the established pattern of the series prevails, and in the end, Tora-san fails to get the girl.

More often than not, Tora-san movies rely heavily on good performances and casting, not only from the regulars but also from the guests. Tora-san Meets His Lordship is no exception. The main guest, veteran actor Arashi is key to the film’s most memorable scenes, as he manages to deliver an emotional performance that is both powerful and subtle. While he only appears relatively little in the film, it’s safe to say that he steals the show. It’s unfortunate that the particularities of his character’s diction (his imperial dialect) might not be entirely clear to non-Japanese speakers, since the subtitles don’t really do him justice. It becomes evident through context, but it would be nice if the subtitles also reflected that distinction.

Of course, regulars Atsumi and Chieko Baisho (as Tora-san’s sister Sakura) are also fantastic, with each receiving a Japanese Academy Award nomination. Their performances, as well as Yoji Yamada’s expert staging, transform the rather simple scenarios of the film’s first half into comedy gold.

Tora-san Meets His Lordship is an excellent entry in the series, though not one I’d recommend as a starting point. The Tora-san films are primarily self-contained and can be viewed out of order. On some occasions, however, the experience benefits from a deeper understanding of the characters, plot patterns, and Yamada’s overall aesthetic approach to the series. Tora-san Meets His Lordship makes clever use of the audience’s expectation to enhance both its comedy and drama, and as such, it is more suited to those who’ve already enjoyed some earlier entries.

The new 4K restoration of Tora-san Meets His Lordship will be shown at Japan Society on December 6.