Tora-San, Wish You Were Here (Japan, 2019) [JAPAN CUTS 2020]

In 1969, director Yoji Yamada helmed It’s Tough Being a Man, a domestic comedy that became an unexpected hit in Japanese cinemas – so much so that by the end of the year Yamada had already made its sequel. The film starred Kiyoshi Atsumi as Torajiro, a travelling vagabond. Tora was never quite as smart as he thought he was, or as lucky in love as he wished to be, but always showed off a good heart underneath all of his bravado and bluster. Something about Tora struck a chord with Japanese audiences. His adventures possessed a warmth that appealed to a wide audience, and his gentle sense of nostalgia – his family operated a traditional sweet shop in the Tokyo satellite town of Shibamata – was popular in a country rushing headlong through a period of post-war industrialisation.

When the first Tora sequel, Tora-San’s Cherished Mother, was also a success, the Shochiku film studio capitalised in a decisive fashion. By the end of 1972 ten films had been released, all starring Kiyoshi Atsumi as Tora, and eight of them directed by Yamada. The series – a perennial audience favourite – only wound up with the Atsumi’s death from cancer in 1996. A total of 48 films had been made: a world record for the longest movie franchise with the same lead actor. All but two had been co-written and directed by Yamada.

Tora-San remains comparatively obscure outside of Japan. Inside Japan the series remains a cultural touchstone; as legendary an aspect of domestic cinema as a giant monster or a samurai. No surprise, then, to see Shochiku release a Tora-San celebration, timed for its 50th anniversary, reuniting a raft of older franchise co-stars, and once again co-written and directed by Yoji Yamada at the distinguished age of 88.

Tora-San, Wish You Were Here opens on Tora’s nephew Mitsuo (Hideotaka Yoshioka), last seen in 1995’s Tora-San to the Rescue as a lovestruck adolescent but now a middle-aged widower with a teenage daughter of his own. A chance encounter with his high school sweetheart Izumi (Kumiko Goto, in her first performance since Tora-San to the Rescue) offers the potential of a fresh romance for them both.

Taken on its own merits, Wish You Were Here is a lightly touching and humorous romance. It has a gentle pace, sensitive performances, and strong themes of memory and regret. It is somewhat old-fashioned in tone and style but delivers enough satisfying moments to stand up as a simple but enjoyable diversion. Where it excels, however, is as the capstone to a 50-years legacy of films.

The film is richly decorated with flashbacks. On the one level such scenes enable the film to include Atsumi’s Tora in some fashion, although they do run the risk of transforming it into something akin to a ‘clip show’ episode of an American TV sitcom. On a deeper level – and in the film’s finer moments – they accentuate the present-day narrative in a manner that is enormously effective and typically impossible to achieve. When Mitsuo recalls his teenage romance with Izumi, the audience sees a teenage Yoshioka and Goto performing together. When his mother (Chieko Baisho – the only actor to perform in all of the films) recalls her brother Tora, the audience sees a younger actress in action. The cumulative effect is both a strong sense of realism, and of a growing intimacy. Long-term audiences have followed these characters’ lives for literally decades, and having their pasts laid out in such a clear fashion is a deeply effective element for the film. The original appeal of Tora-San was its nostalgia for an older Japan; now it boasts a nostalgia for Tora-San.

A decent romance is also a pitch-perfect celebration. For new audiences Wish You Were Here is competent but not exceptional. For the fans it is something that feels genuinely unique, and tantalisingly leaves itself open for future visits to Shibamata.

Tora-San, Wish You Were Here is streaming as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film from July 17-30.