The first entry in the acclaimed Tora-san series, the first installment sees Tora (Kiyoshi Atsumi) return to his hometown after a 20 year absence. Reunitig with his sister Sakura (Chieko Baisho) and his aunt and uncle, he settles into a cycle of embarrassment and exasperation for his put upon relatives. Along the way, he meddles in his sister’s lovelife, makes crass jokes, gets excessively drunk, and just maybe falls in love. With his characteristic boisterous attitude but with a lot of heart and vulnerability, Tora-san is probably Japan’s most recognizable film persona.
Written and directed by the incomparable Yoji Yamada, we see a reflective portrait of post-war Japan and its emergence as an industrial powerhouse set against the traditionalism in many families changing to a more modern setting. While this itself is more characteristic of the period than the story, it does set up a number of important threads for our heroes; a small factory is right next-door to Tora’s family home, Western influence is visible much more evidently, and Tora-san’s bumpkin nature belies his well traveled history.
Atsumi is terrific as Tora; his performance is a mix of the obliviousness of Peter Sellers with the bravado of Takeshi Kitano, but without the harshness and brutality. He truly is a lovable character and his humor and timing is dead-on. Chieko Baisho stuns as Sakura; she’s absolutely gorgeous and her put-upon character carries a real warmth and affection for her brother. The supporting cast is excellent with veterans Ryu Chishu, Shin Morikawa, Gin Maeda, and Chieko Misaki all turning in great performances. I absolutely love Chishu’s Gozen; he’s laugh out loud funny despite his deadpan expression.
Production looks fantastic with the great lived in feel of the sets and a beautiful postcard-esque look to the the city and its various locales. Naozumi Yamamoto turns in a memorable score with Tora’s theme standing out as well as a few vocal bits by the film’s stars, most notably Atsumi’s hilarious and stare-inducing lovesick ditty. All around it’s a winningly terrific film with some phenomenal production value.
Criminally unseen in the the United States, the Tora-san series is of course notable for Atsumi’s portrayal of the character. Spanning 48 feature films between 1969 and 1995, he would play the character until his death. This first entry stacks among the best; introducing the character and his long-suffering family set up a number of running gags which will make appearances in subsequent films. The humor and performances abound and we should all be so lucky to have Tora drift into our lives.