Could Yoji Yamada have foreseen that his Otoko ha Tsurai Yo would become so successful and that Tora-san would become such an icon? Maybe. When he approached Shochiku, it was his believe in and his enthusiasm for the project that persuaded Shochiku, the distributing agency, to go on with the project. As history shows, it was a decision that Shochiku did not regret.
[Our review of the 15th entry of our famous peddler is as much a review as it is a further elaboration of Tora-san’s characters and the appeal he had and still has for Japanese audiences.]
One day, while talking to Sakura (Chieko Baisho), Tora-san’s uncle (Masami Shimojō) expresses his wish to find a bride for his nephew Torajiro (Kiyoshi Atsumi). By mere chance, a suitable marriage candidate, Lily (Ruriko Asaoka), an old friend of Tora-san who has recently divorced her husband, enters the dango-shop, but, as Tora-san is once again on one of his travels, he is not able to help his nephew’s romantic desire.
By sheer luck, Lily, who tours the country as a singer, meets Tora-san in Hakodate, Hokkaido. They decide to travel together, but Tora-san’s bluntness eventually leads her to run away. To search for her, he decides to return to Tokyo.
The swashbuckling dream that opens the fifteenth narrative is a precise and creative way to introduce new-comers and long-time fans to the truth of Tora-san’s subject – the three coordinates that structure him as subject. Firstly, it shows – just like in other narratives – that he is always marked by a nostalgia for his hometown, a nostalgia ever urging him to return. Secondly, his dream underlines, by equating him with the position of pirate, that he does not fit the ordinary semblances of Japanese society. And thirdly, Tora-san’s actions as Captain Tiger show the inherent kindness that marks him.
Moreover, the dream, by staging the second and the third characteristic of his subjectivity, subtly touches upon the very dynamic that dooms him to become the dupe of the Other, be it the semblances of society (concerning manhood or womanhood) or the mesmerizing beauty and indulgent friendliness of his “Madonna”.
Yamada’s fifteenth narrative is less concerned with offering slapstick comedy and confronting the spectator with the painful problems Tora-san creates. He focuses, in this narrative, on Tora-san’s desire for romance and his inherent kindheartedness. He offers, in our view, a further elaboration of his way of being and how this way of being can help others as well as problematize his relations with others.
What this narrative shows – something also apparent in other narratives – is that his kindheartedness is function of his imaginary. His kindhearted acts are always born from his interpretation of the specific situation – e.g. reading the act of repairing a lamp as an attempt to commit suicide. It is, in fact, the sole reliance of Tora-san on his imaginary interpretations that leads him to act before thinking. But it is not, as one could expect, the speed by which he acts that often causes problems, but the fact that the swiftness of helping others goes against the semblances of Japanese society. He acts, in other words, without being hindered by the “rules” of society. The same is true for Tora-san’s way of speaking: he speaks his mind bluntly without caring about the ‘oppressive’ social rules of respect and friendliness.
It is, partially, by speaking bluntly that he problematizes his position with respect to his “Madonna”. He, in some way or another, fails to play the game of romance in accordance with the rules/semblances of the game. Or, to put it more bluntly, he ultimately fails to romance his “Madonna” because he speaks and acts solely from his own imaginary/fantasy and not from a position that takes the imaginary of the woman he loves (sufficiently) into account (Narra-note 1). He cannot read women (Narra-note 2). They play with him, but he, honest and kindhearted as he is, cannot play with them; they remain, more than for any other man, a continent he cannot understand (Narra-note 3).
The appeal of Tora-san for the (Japanese) spectator lies in the very fact that has a certain freedom with respect to the semblances of society – not only by being a peddler but also by his very being as such. Yes, his ‘blindness’ might cause him to become the dupe of the societal Other and the female Other, but his blindness of the Other, a blindness causing him to act and speak freely from his imaginary, also allows him to escape the oppressive shackles of the strict Japanese societal system.
The composition of Tora-san Meets the Songstress Again offers a simple mix of static shots, spatial shots, and tracking shots. Yamada’s Tora-san films do not offer anything extra-ordinary at the level of the visuals and frankly it does not need to. The cinematography does what it intends to do: showing in a simple way how Tora-san, beyond his own will, once again becomes the dupe of semblances and the woman he falls in love with.
While Tora-san Meets the Songstress Again is a more emotionally tame tragicomic narrative than the first, Yamada still delivers that what makes Tora-san so enjoyable for audiences: his problematic truth; that the little freedom he has in relation to the Other condemns him to an existence of being, over and over again, duped by that very Other. It is this conflict that the spectator enjoys and allows the narrative to become heartwarming, fun, and sad, all at the same time.
Narra-note 1: When Tora-san explains his desire to realize Lily’s dream, how he tells it reveals his desire as being solely his fantasy. Despite Tora-san saying he wants to make Lily’s dream come true, we, as spectator, (and Tora-san for that matter) do not know what Lily’s dream actually is.
Narra-note 2: That Tora-san is nevertheless formed by the Other – the Other that dupes him over and over again – is made evident when he, in response to Lily’s frank comments, asks her if she is really a woman. The ideal-image Tora-san has of women might be imaginary, but his ideal-image is structured by the Japanese ideals of how woman should be.
Narra-note 3: In this narrative, things lie somewhat differently as we have a Madonna who appears to be in love with Tora-san. There is no misplaced hope by Tora-san.
Instead, the way that Tora-san and Lily enjoy themselves while going out – a blunt way of enjoying going against various semblances of society – ignites bad rumours about the nature of their relationship (e.g. romance, hooker-pimp).