1 October 2019 | topitimo-829-270459
When He Is Not Doing "Tora-san", Yamada is Still Too "Tora-san" For his Own Good
I like Yamada Yoji. Likable is half of his brand. This is a Japanese director, who is most known for his Tora-san films. Tora-san (Otoko wa tsurai yo, in Japanese) is the world's longest film series with the same lead actor, that being Atsumi Kiyoshi. Those films are charming comedies with a hint of sadness and a bunch of nostalgia for home and childhood. Nothing fantastic, but not bad either. Yamada directed an amazing 46 out of 48 entries.
For Yamada, this meant that during several of his most fruitful decades as a film-maker, he did not have time to do much else than Tora-sans. This is a little sad, since he is a talented director, capable of other things as well. And when he took his one and only break from that franchise after the second movie to direct "Kazoku" (Where the Spring Comes Late, 1970), for mysterious reasons, he chose to use exactly the same group of actors, who are the central players of the Tora-san universe.
For western audiences, this is most likely not a problem. However, Kazoku is a serious drama, and Tora-sans are comedies. And Yamada's frustrating way of forcing Tora-cameos to this film really pulls you out of the experience. This is sad, because "Kazoku" (the title is Japanese for "family") could really be the best film of Yamada's career.
This film is about the plight of a poor worker family, who leave their old living quarters in the southern island of Kyushu in hopes of a better life in northern Hokkaido. To get there, they will have to travel for several days, in which time they face several personal tragedies. The ending, however, gives us hope of a spring coming late for them.
The story is both interesting and universal. Even though I criticized Yamada for using "Team Tora" so thoroughly, the female lead Baisho Chieko is fantastic. In the Tora films she plays Tora's little sister Sakura, and though she is the emotional heart of those films, she doesn't really get much to do in them. Here, she gives a soulful and compelling master-class performance. Another notable exception is the great Ryu Chishu, known for the world cinema audiences from his many Ozu roles. Due to his presence as the family's grandfather, I was making many comparisons to Ozu's Tokyo Monogotari (Tokyo Story, 1953), to which this could work as a thematic sibling-film. If it weren't for the comical misteps...
Yamada can't keep the tone of his masterwork coherent for the entire duration. Every now and then there's either comedic elements that don't fit like the cameo by Atsumi himself, or scenes that cry out for a director, with more political views to express. As a depiction of the plight of the poorer classes, it would have been interesting to see, what a nastier director like Shindo Kaneto or Kobayashi Masaki could have done with the scenario. I dare say I would not be talking about Tora-san, if they had been in charge.
The story would have benefited from a few additions to it. In the beginning, the audience should be better informed, as to why the situation of the family has grown so dark, that they have to re-locate themselves to the other side of Japan. Now it seems like that was just an opportunity they took. Then again in the end, when Yamada is trying to fill his audience with optimism, it would have been great to see more concrete things, that could indicate things actually improving for the characters.
Even after this criticism, I think this is one of Yamada's best works, and deserves to be viewed. Even if it's not as good as it could be, it's better than most Tora films are, and really hints that Yamada (as well as Baisho!) could have taken breaks from the franchise more often.