Some Thoughts on Tora-san and Tora-san 50

A few days ago Sankei Shinbun published an article by Katsuro Fujii of their culture desk with his notes and thoughts from the announcement of the new Tora-san movie in Tokyo on September 6th. Th announcement was part of a wider presentation of what Shochiku is doing for the 50th anniversary of the Tora-san series, which is coming up next year.

The question on everyone’s mind, however, is the new film and what kind of movie will it be, considering the star, Kiyoshi Atsumi, died over 20 years ago. There is even a twitter hashtag #こんな寅さんの新作は嫌だ (#thisisthenewtorasanfilmidontwant), expressing some people’s perhaps not quite serious worries about the new film.

As a Tora-san fan myself, though, I was a bit worried and the last thing I would want to see is a CGI Tora-san or a newly cast Tora-san. To be honest, I can’t think which would be worse!

The presentation itself, as reported by Fujii, did provide some clues to which direction Yamada is taking the film.

Fujii initially quotes Yoji Yamada himself as saying “This can only be a kind of miraculous film, don’t you think? So, I am looking forward to it as well.” Fujii notes that Yamada had a “mischievous look about him” while saying this.

Fujii follows that with a longer quote from a Shichoku rep:

At the presentation, producer Hiroshi Furuzawa stood at the podium and stated: “Filming will occur from mid-October until the end of November, at both the studio as well as locations around Tokyo. Of course, since it is a Tora-san film, the star will be Kiyoshi Atsumi. It will also have a splendid cast, as well, starting with Chieko Baisho (who played Sakura, his sister), Gin Maeda (Hiroshi, his brother in law), and Hidetaka Yoshioka (his nephew Mitsuo. The character was born in the first film and Yoshioka began playing him in the 27th film). As to what the film will be about, our director Yoji Yamada gave a hint when he stated it would be a miraculous film. I think it will end up being will be a wonderful film which everyone can enjoy.” This was all he said, which was a bit ambiguous.

Chieko Baisho is Sakura, Tora-san’s sister. Gin Maeda plays Hiroshi, Sakura’s husband and Tora-san’s brother-in-law. And Hidetaka Yoshioka played Mitsuo, Tora-san’s nephew. Although Mitsuo was born in the first film, Yoshioka didn’t start playing him until the 27th film in 1981. From the 44th film, however, as Atsumi’s health began to decline, Yoshioka’s Mitsuo took on a larger role, with Tora-san there to give Mitsuo advice (good or not) as he pursued his love Izumi (played by Kumiko Goto).

Fujii reports, however, that Yamada actually had a bit more to say at the event concerning what he was thinking about as he considered making a new Tora-san film.

“Sometimes I watch the DVDs again, and think wouldn’t it have been really interesting to have put in more about Yoshioka’s growing up. We haven’t had that kind of movie before I think.

Yamada went on a bit more about this, saying comparing it to Francois Truffaut’s classic film The 400 Blows is one clue to the new film. The adventures of the 12 year old boy, Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud), became a series of five films, ending with 1979’s Love on the Run. This series, like the Tora-san series, showed the characters development over 20 years.

“Those films were also made over a long period of time. Our films, though, were made year after year, twice a year once we got going with the series, so we could record his growth. We were able to picture one young boy’s path to manhood, his spiritual development, and so couldn’t we make some kind of film about him up to the present day? In fact, I began thinking about this some years back, and now that we have reached the 50th anniversary of the series it looks like we can actually make it.”

I haven’t seen any of the the films by Truffaut about Antoine Doinel. Nor have I seen Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s film shot over a period of 12 years that also showed the growth of a young boy to manhood, which is the film I immediately thought when I read this article. In any case, all are now on my “list” to see before next August.

Yamada mentioning that the films were able to show the development of people over the course of 20 years is, to me, one of the more meaningful aspects of watching the Tora-san series. Showing the development of the family and of Japan, as well, over a 20-odd year period is really a great historical document.

I have two short stories from my travels around Japan that bring this home.

I visited visited Bitchu-Takahashi a few years back. Bitchu-Takahashi was where the family home of Hiroshi Suwa, Sakura’s husband. Tora and Hiroshi’s too serious classical literature scholar father-in-law (played by the great Takashi Shimura). Tora ended up visting Bitchu-Takahashi twice in the films. The first time he visited his father-in-law, the second was when he discovered his father-in-law passed away. The two films, the 8th, filmed in 1971, and the 32nd, filmed in 1983.

I went there with my wife and we were taking a taxi up to Matsuyama Castle and, of course, I mentioned we were in town because of Tora-san. The taxi driver was a big Tora-san fan, as well, and told us how Yamada specifically filmed a scene in the second film in the same location as the first, overlooking the train tracks and the town, to record how the town had changed over the past 10 years.

Then this summer I visited Esashi, which was a location of a scene in Tora-san 26. Esashi is famous for a folk song that originated there, the Esashi Oiwake and every year they have a national competition. It is usually inside, but for the film they created an outdoor stage and festival. The main reason for this scene is for Tora-san to find out that his friend, who was from Okushiri-to, an island a few hours by ferry to the west of Esashi, had passed away.

However, the concert grounds and the city were meticulously filmed, setting the scene for where Tora-san and his fellow tekiya have set up their stalls. Yamada shows two performers singing the Esashi Oiwake in the film.

Before heading off to the seaside park and campgrounds where the film locations were, I spent some time at the Easashi-Oiwake museum. I listened and watched some recordings as well as viewing a live performance of Esashi-Oiwake and other folk songs. Then, I asked the guy at the front desk, who had also participated in the performance, which of the CDs they had on sale he would recommend I buy. He said one by Mitsuru Aosaka would be good, because it also had other folk songs in addition to the Esashi Oiwake.

Great, I think. And then I headed up to Kamome-jima, where the competition scene was filmed. With my trusty tablet, I start watching the scene to see if I can figure out exactly where the scene was filmed and then I see that Mitsuru Aosaka is one of the people singing the Esashi-Oiwake in the film!

When I came back to Esashi from Okushiri-to a few days later, I had some extra time so I went back to the museum to confirm it was him. The guy at the desk wasn’t as excited as I was. He was nonplussed when I thrust my tablet in front of him for the confirmation, and yet he answered: “Yes, that is Aosaka-sensei.”

The films are filled with these small moments recording the local lives of people throughout Japan. And for me, someone who was born in the early 70s and who first came to Japan in the mid-90, it was filmed from about when I was born and as I was growing up until I first arrived in Japan.

A friend of mine who is also a big fan of Tora-san told me he heard Yamada say on the radio recently that he had a lot of leftover footage from the series, as well. So by “miraculous” my hope is that we will see “new” footage of Tora-san and the film won’t just be a “greatest hits” film with clips we have already seen. Then, if that is edited together with new footage to be able to see how the Suwa family, Hiroshi, Sakura, and Mitsuo, are doing today and how their memories of Tora-san still influence them today, well, I don’t want to second guess Yoji Yamada, but that would be the Tora-san I want to see.