Tora-san, My Uncle (男はつらいよ ぼくの伯父さん, Yoji Yamada, 1989)

“My uncle was born a kind man, but his kindness is intrusive. He’s short tempered too, so often his kindness ends up causing a fight” according to the introduction given by Mitsuo (Hidetaka Yoshioka), nephew of the titular Tora-san (Kiyoshi Atsumi) in the 42nd instalment in the long running series, Tora-san, My Uncle (男はつらいよ ぼくの伯父さん, Otoko wa Tsurai yo: Boku no Ojisan). People may say he’s “an oddball”, but just recently, Mitsuo claims, he’s learned to appreciate his uncle’s peculiar charms. Up to this point, the series had followed a familiar pattern in which Tora-san has an encounter on the road and returns home to visit his family in Shibamata falling in love with an unattainable woman along the way. My Uncle, as the title perhaps implies, shifts the focus away from Tora directly towards his wayward nephew Mitsuo now a moody teenager studying to retake his university entrance exams. 

The problem is, Mitsuo is having trouble concentrating because he’s fallen in love. Izumi (Kumiko Goto) was a year below him in high school but after her parents got divorced she moved away and is currently living with her mother (Mari Natsuki) who runs a hostess bar in Nagoya. Mitsuo has been wanting to go and visit but his father, Hiroshi (Gin Maeda), has banned travel until after his exams and his authoritarian ruling has placed a strain on their relationship while Sakura (Chieko Baisho), Mitsuo’s mother and Tora’s younger sister, is getting fed up with his moodiness. That might be why she asks Tora to have a word with him on one of his rare visits, hoping Mitsuo will be able to talk frankly to his uncle about things he might not want to discuss with his parents. Only when Tora’s uncle (Masami Shimojo) and aunt (Chieko Misaki) point out the dangers does she realise her mistake. Perhaps you might not want your son to receive the kind of advice a man like Tora might give. Their misgivings are borne out when Tora brings him home a little the worse for wear after teaching him how to drink sake (and flirt with waitresses). 

Rather than Tora it’s Mitsuo we follow as he ignores his parents and goes off to find Izumi on his own. Mitsuo is not Tora, however, and he’s still fairly naive, unaware of the dangers inherent in a life on the road which is how he gets himself into a sticky situation with a man who helped him (Takashi Sasano) after he had a bike accident but turned out to have ulterior motives. After discovering that Izumi has gone to live with her aunt (Fumi Dan) in the country and finally arriving, Mitsuo begins to have his doubts. She wrote to him that she was lonely so he jumped on his bike and came, but now he wonders if that was really an OK thing to do or if she might find it a little excessive, even creepy. Her neighbours may gossip after seeing a (slightly) older boy from Tokyo suddenly turn up on a motorbike, maybe like Tora he’s acted on impulse out of kindness but has accidentally made trouble for her?

Meanwhile, Sakura and Hiroshi are at home worried sick, aware their son has grown up and evidently has some important rite of passage stuff to do, but it would have been nice if he’d called. Everyone’s used to Tora breezing in and out of their lives and it’s not as if they don’t worry, but it’s different with Mitsuo. Luckily and through staggering coincidence Mitsuo ends up running into Tora who, perhaps ironically, gets him to phone home and then starts helping him out with his youthful romantic dilemma. Though some of the advice he gives is a little problematic, there’s a fine line when it comes to being “persistent” in love, he is nevertheless supportive and proves popular with Izumi’s mild-mannered aunt and lonely grandfather-in-law (Masao Imafuku) who subjects him to a day-long lecture about traditional ceramics which he listens to patiently because as he says, old people are happy when someone listens to them. The problems are entirely with Izumi’s extremely conservative school teacher uncle (Isao Bito) who appears to terrorise his wife and objects strongly to Mitsuo’s impulsive gesture of love, bearing out Mitsuo’s concerns in implying that he’s endangering Izumi’s reputation, though apparently more worried about how it looks for him as a school teacher if she’s caught hanging out with a motorcycle-riding “delinquent”. The final straw is his telling Mitsuo off for neglecting his studies, insisting no one so “stupid” could ever hope to go to uni.

Left behind, Tora tries to defend Mitsuo to the snooty uncle, telling him that he’s proud of his nephew for doing something kind even if others don’t see it that way, but the uncle simply replies that they obviously disagree and abruptly walks off. Perhaps there’s no talking to some people, but Tora does what he can anyway. Mitsuo gains a new appreciation for his kindhearted family, not to mention his eccentric uncle. “Trips make everyone wise”, Tora tells Hiroshi, well except for some people, he later adds before once again getting literally cut off from everyone waiting for him back in Shibamata. The signs of bubble-era prosperity are everywhere from Mitsuo’s motorbike and comparatively spacious family home to the increased mobility and the upscale interior of Izumi’s mother’s “snack” bar, but Tora is still a post-war wanderer bound for the road, drifting whichever way the wind blows him.


Tora-san, My Uncle streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tora-san Meets the Songstress Again (男はつらいよ 寅次郎相合い傘, Yoji Yamada, 1975)

Spanning 48 films and almost 30 years from the middle of the economic miracle to the post-Bubble depression, the Tora-san series provided a certain kind of comforting stability with its well established formula that saw the titular travelling salesman alternately hit the road and return home to his wholesome family waiting and worrying in Shibamata, always glad to see him but also anxious as to what kind of trouble he’ll be causing this time around. Among the most melancholy of the series, Tora-san #15, Tora-san Meets the Songstress Again (男はつらいよ 寅次郎相合い傘, Otoko wa Tsurai yo: Torajiro Aiaigasa, AKA Tora-san’s Rise and Fall) sees him flirt with the idea of settling down while others wrestle with the costs of the salaryman dream and the contradictions of the post-war era. 

Yamada opens, however, with an exciting dream sequence in which Tora (Kiyoshi Atsumi) re-imagines himself as a heroic pirate saving his family members, and all the residents of Shibamata, from enslavement by some kind of evil capitalist villain. He wakes up and leaves the cinema, but Shibamata is perhaps on his thoughts once again acting as it does as a kind of “port” in his life of perpetual wandering. For the moment he’s travelling with a depressed salaryman, Hyodo (Eiji Funakoshi), whom he rescued at a train station fearing he may have been about to take his own life. Meanwhile, back in Shibamata, Tora’s old friend Lily (Ruriko Asaoka) has come looking for him at the dango shop apparently now divorced, tearfully explaining to Tora’s sister Sakura (Chieko Baisho) that she wasn’t well suited to being a housewife after all and is planning to head back out on the road as an itinerant singer. 

Perhaps ironically, Tora is angry with Hyodo for causing worry to his family by disappearing without notice, eventually ringing Sakura to tell her to ring Hyodo’s wife and let her know he’s alright (why he doesn’t just ring himself is a mystery, and in any case he only has the one coin for the payphone so runs out of time to explain). What we can infer is that Hyodo has in a sense achieved the “salaryman dream” but it’s left him feeling empty and unfulfilled. Mrs. Hyodo appears to be very prim and proper, their home spacious and tastefully decorated. When Sakura calls two men from her husband’s company are with her trying to figure out where Hyodo could have gone. She explains that her husband is a timid man and earnest, it’s unlikely he’s gone off with another woman and it’s out of character for him go AWOL from work so she’s at least very relieved to learn he’s alive even if Tora ran out of time to say where they were. Hyodo isn’t really sure anyone’s missing him, and as we later discover his flight is part mid-life crisis in that he’s heading to the hometown of his first love. He assumes she also will have married and has no illusions of a romantic reunion but simply wants to make sure she’s happy (as he, presumably, is not). Discovering she’s a widow gives him pause for thought, but on seeing her he realises the futility of his situation and resolves to return home to his dull and conventional salaryman life. 

It’s a huge source of irony to Tora that anyone might envy him. Indeed, Mrs. Hyodo quite snobbishly insists on asking Sakura about Tora’s company joking that “he can’t just be a pedlar” much to Sakura’s embarrassment. But that sense of freedom and the open road appears to be something Hyodo is looking for, childishly romanticising hardship, finding sleeping on park benches and helping Tora pull salesman’s scams in the street exciting rather than worrying (he could after all always just go home). Yet he also envies Tora for having such a loving and forgiving family, explaining that his now look down on him because he’s been demoted at work, as if they only value him for what he represents an embodiment of the salaryman dream. Lily too is as much in love with Tora’s family as anything else, though the complex relationship between the pair begins to scandalise the conservative local community. Sakura frames it as a joke but puts it to Lily that it would be nice if she and Tora could marry so she’d be a part of their family. Lily unexpectedly agrees, overcome with emotion, but Tora is his old insensitive, if perhaps perceptive self, declaring that they’re too alike. Like him she’s a bird meant to wander. She’d only stay until she felt ready to fly. 

Tora-san and Lily are wandering souls cast adrift in the post-war era, unable to find firm footing while Hyodo’s existential angst suggests the salaryman dream is not the answer either. Only Sakura and the Kurumas seem to be doing well enough, living their ordinary, wholesome lives in Shibamata. “She probably has problems we don’t know about” Tora’s aunt remarks watching Queen Elizabeth II waving gracefully on the television, lamenting that it must be tiring to have to stand around so long. Everyone has problems but they carry on. In Shibamata they try to be kind and especially to big-hearted men like Tora no matter what kind of trouble they may cause.


Tora-san Meets the Songstress Again streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Village (同胞, Yoji Yamada, 1975)

The Village posterBest known for the long running Tora-san series, Yoji Yamada has often been disregarded by international critics for a perceived over indulgence in sentimentality. Nevertheless, his films are often at pains to capture a Japan which is changing with a noted ambivalence towards the results of those changes. Home From the Sea had rooted itself in the difficult decision of a young couple in realising that their way of life was no longer sustainable in a rapidly modernising economy. The Village (同胞, Harakara) returns to a similar theme, once again harping on “furusato” while the conflicted younger residents of a farming village struggle with the decision to accept the life passed down to them by their parents or abandon it in favour of the bright lights of an urban future.

Narrated by Takashi (Akira Terao), a young farmer and president of the local youth club, The Village revolves around one heady spring in which the arrival of a sophisticated woman from Tokyo injects additional stimulation into the sometimes stagnant community. Takashi, in many ways a very typical resident of Matsuo and many other rapidly depopulating rural villages like it, has taken over his family dairy farm following the death of his father when he was relatively young. His brother, Hiroshi (Hisashi Igawa), took a factory job to help make ends meet and put Takashi through school but has now become embittered and resentful as the widowed father of two young girls. Trapped by circumstance he berates Takashi for his diffidence in remaining uncommitted to farm life while perhaps dreaming of something better that he is too afraid to pursue.

The arrival of Hideko Konno (Chieko Baisho) seems to give Takashi a new sense of purpose. Hideko works for an itinerant theatre company based out of Tokyo which makes a point of taking shows to remote areas which might not ordinarily get much access to the arts. The snag is that the locality will have to take the responsibility of producing the show and absorbing the shortfall should they fail to sell enough tickets to cover costs. Takashi is tempted but he’s also well aware of the risks – the investment is sizeable given the relative poverty of the rural area and the risks involved with failure extreme.

Yamada places the dilemma surrounding whether or not to produce the show at the forefront, but the questions are bigger than they might at first seem. It has to be said that farming, whatever its rewards, is an extremely hard life. As a character puts it in the emotively titled play “Furusato”, it’s disheartening when you get a bad harvest and all your work goes for nothing but it’s almost worse when the harvest is good and the value of your work drops exponentially. For Takashi and the others, the youth association is a much needed social outlet even if many of them regard it as something of a joke and rarely get around to doing very much with it. The idea of the play is attractive to them for several reasons, having something more interesting to do not the least among them, not to mention offering a valuable break in routine in what can often be an overly ordered and somewhat stagnant existence.

However, the very same reasons the play appeals to the youngsters are the ones their elders find suspicious. Having made their peace with rural life and learned to adapt to its rhythms, the older generation worry that the young ones are being swayed by outside influences and neglecting their work in favour of idle pursuits. Meanwhile, many of the youngsters have already left to try their luck in the cities, some of them returning and bringing new experiences back with them while others resolve to remain where the lights are brighter.

Setting the scene, Yamada reminds us the factories have long been encroaching on farmland and that this “ancient” way of life is becoming ever harder in a rapidly modernising economy, but through their involvement with the play and its extremely close to home themes, the members of the youth association are finally able to look at their village through new eyes, seeing not only its immense visual beauty for the first time but learning to reappreciate the value of community and friendship. Life in the city might be more glamorous but perhaps it’s no less hard and only lonely in a different way. At once a celebration of and lament for a changing rural landscape, The Village asks an accidentally profound series of questions about life and happiness but once again puts its faith in goodhearted people creating meaning from togetherness in a world that might otherwise set them apart.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kokoro (こころ, Kon Ichikawa, 1955)

kokoro coverAmong the most well-regarded of his works, Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro (こころ) is a deeply felt mediation on guilt, repression, atonement, and despair as well as an examination of life on a temporal threshold. Kon Ichikawa’s long career would be marked by literary adaptations both of classics and genre fiction but even among these Kokoro is something of an exception, marshalling all of his skills bar his trademark irony in a melancholy tale of loneliness, self loathing, and the destructive effects self-destruction on those caught in the cross fire.

Ichikawa opens in media res as Nobuchi (Masayuki Mori) and his wife, Shizu (Michiyo Aratama), appear to have had an argument. She darns angrily while he paces and eventually seems to relent on his decision not to let her accompany him to the grave of a mutual friend, Kaji (Tatsuya Mihashi), who died when Nobuchi was still a student. Eventually Nobuchi goes alone but is disturbed in the graveyard by the approach of an enthusiastic young university student, Hioki (Shoji Yasui), who has been redirected by Shizu after turning up to ask to borrow some books. Nobuchi is not really in the mood to talk but the two men chat, eventually sharing a drink together in the local bar before Nobuchi abruptly returns home, pausing only to invite Hioki to visit another time for the books he wanted to borrow.

Though the marriage of Nobuchi and Shizu may seem to be a model one, their lives together are mostly performance. Nobuchi is a melancholy, gloomy man who does not work and lives the life of a scholar, living off family money. The household is not wealthy but they are able to afford one maid and live in reasonable comfort. They have no children and, it seems, the marriage may be one of companionship rather than passion.

On their first meeting Nobuchi refuses to tell Hioki the reason why he is the way he is, but decides he must explain and that Hioki is the only person he can unburden himself to. Badly let down by those who should have had his best interests at heart at a young age, Nobuchi has learned not to trust, believes that love is a “sin”, and that he is unworthy of any kind of personal happiness or fulfilment. As a young man, Nobuchi did something completely unforgivable for the most selfish (and fiendishly complicated) of reasons and his best friend, Kaji, later died as a direct result.

Where Nobuchi is cynical, Kaji is ascetic and closed off but sincere in his Buddhist practice. Nobuchi’s actions are not only hurtful in their deliberate betrayal, but amount to a slow implosion of Kaji’s entire spiritual universe. Having been tempted away from his religious beliefs by irrepressible desire, Kaji’s path to spiritual fulfilment has been severed and his path to other kinds of happiness blocked by Nobuchi’s own panicked act of personal betrayal. Unable to reconcile his cowardly, cruel actions which have, in a sense, broken Kaji’s “heart”, Nobuchi resolves to deny himself the life he stole from his friend, committing himself to a living death defined by the absence of physical love, desire, or success.

Hioki first meets Nobuchi when he sees him attempt to walk into the sea and saves him from drowning. Immediately drawn to him, Hioki believes he and the man he calls “sensei” share the same kind of existential loneliness. His eagerness to forge a friendship with the older, aloof scholar may seem strange but Ichikawa is keen to build on a much disputed subtext of the original novel in Nobuchi’s possible repressed homosexuality. Hioki steps into the space vacated by Kaji which has been empty the last 15 years as the sort of man who might understand Nobuchi’s “heart”.

Shizu attempts to ask the question directly, both about Nobuchi’s relationship with Kaji whose name she is forbidden to mention and to new friend Hioki whom she fears maybe taking Kaji’s place in her husband’s affections. Pleading that she just wants to understand his “heart”, Shizu tries to get some clarification on the empty hell that is her married life, but Nobuchi’s heart is firmly closed to her and she’s shut out once again.

On hearing of the death of the Emperor Meiji, Nobuchi’s gloom descends still further as he feels himself to be a man who’s outlived his age. At one point, long before, he pushes Kaji on his spiritual weaknesses prompting him to admit he doesn’t know whether to go forward or back. Nobuchi, cynical and perceptive, points out that there likely is no back even if you wanted to go there. Taking the teacher/student relationship to its natural conclusion, Nobuchi’s final testament in which he confesses the circumstances which have led to his spiritual death is intended only for Hioki in the hope that the younger man can learn from his mistakes and prepare himself to step forward into the bright new age where Nobuchi fears to tread. Once again his actions are selfish in the extreme, but there is something universally understood in Nobuchi’s particular pain and the steps he takes to ease it.


Previously available on DVD from Eureka, now sadly OOP.

Scene from midway through the film