Friday, September 19, 2008

REVIEW: Tora-san's Sunrise and Sunset - Yoji Yamada (1976)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

The Tora-san series of films, or as they're known in Japan "Otoko wa tsurai yo (It's Tough Being a Man)" are wildly popular in their home country, but have gone virtually unknown in North America . It's a shame because they are truly a unique phenomena. Comprised of 48 films released over a 26 year period from 1969 to 1995 the adventures of Torajiro Kuruma, the free-spirited traveling salesman, are the longest running film series in cinema history. What makes them even more unique is that 46 of the 48 films were all written and directed by Yoji Yamada, the man behind the highly acclaimed "The Hidden Blade" and "Twilight Samurai". I had seen Tora-san films before when I was visiting Japan in 2006, but I have to admit that back then I was still getting to know my way around Japanese cinema, so that when I'd see these movies repeated over and over again on daytime TV I didn't have a clue as to who this man in the checkered suit and short brim fedora was. Since then I'd done my homework, but even still when I sat down recently to catch a screening of the 17th film in the series "Tora-san's Sunrise and Sunset" (1976) at Cinematheque Ontario I felt like I was watching my first Tora-san film: formulaic and corny, but at the same time heartfelt and homey.

"Sunrise and Sunset" follows the basic arch of most of the Tora-san films: Torajiro sets out from his family's sweet shop in the Shibamata district of Tokyo and gets involved in all manner of highjinks in various spots in Japan, meets a beautiful girl, falls in love, but things fall through and he weaves his way back home again. In this case Torajiro returns to home to celebrate his nephew's first day of grade school, but argues with his sister, Sakura (Chieko Baisho) and mother about how the boy is already getting picked on for having a n'er do well as an uncle. Subsequently Torajiro heads off to the nearest bar for a bit of a wallow and meets a grubby old drunk who can't pay his bar tab. Tora is more than happy to oblige, even bringing the drunk home (much to his parents chagrin) so he can sleep things off, but everyone is shocked when the next morning the old man sticks around to demand breakfast, lunch and even for Tora-san's mother to clean his room. A back and forth between the man and Torajiro follows during which this house guest from hell realizes he's not staying at an inn and to compensate the Kuruma family for the trouble he's put them through dashes off a quick drawing that fetches Torajiro a hefty sum at a local bookstore/ gallery. You see, it turns out that this broke old bum is no bum at all, but a famous artist. "What if we keep this guy around?" Tora thinks, "He could paint pictures and we'll never have to work again," but no sooner does he hatch this plot that the artist, Ikenouchi, is off home and Torajiro heads off in pursuit of his meal ticket. Not only does Tora find Ikenouchi, but he gets mistaken for his assistant and is treated like a celebrity himself, but he also gets involved with a beautiful geisha named Botan (Kiwako Taichi) who is trying to win back the fortune she's had stolen from her... and yes, they fall in love.

Every plot beat, twist and turn of “Tora-san’s Sunrise and Sunset” seemed to be the direct result of Torajiro’s buffoonery or often misguided empathy, and I have to admit that despite my love of Japanese cinema for having innovative narrative structures the film initially hit me as a botched attempt at a sit-com or soap opera. As the predominantly Japanese audience (which strangely enough is a rarity in Toronto for a Japanese film) roared with laughter I sat and puzzled over what kept the series going for so many years. It wasn’t until about half way through that the charm of Tora-san hit me.

I remember as a kid hearing stories from my mom and dad about my great-uncle Frank. The son of Italian immigrants he happily jumped from one odd job to another, got drunk, got in trouble and did it laughing all the way. Even when I finally met Frank when he was a fairly elderly man he still had a mischievous glint in his eye and enjoyed telling the “Uncle Frank” stories just as much as my parents did; and I think that every family has the black sheep whose storied past gets recounted again and again at family functions and around the dinner table, and in many ways that’s who Tora-san is. Year after year Japanese families would get to check in with Uncle Tora and hear about his latest adventures, adventures that most conservative and responsible Japanese would never dream of taking part in themselves. Unfortunately Tora-san’s wanderings ended when actor Kiyoshi Atsumi died in 1996, so now the world is left to relive his stories through the magic of film, but like any good family tale these stories will never grow old.

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