No wonder "Tora-san Goes North" (Little Tokyo Cinema 1) has been the biggest hit in the long-running Japanese series. Guest stars are a Tora-san staple, but Toshiro Mifune, by now an international institution, is in a class by himself. What's gratifying--but not surprising--is that writer-director Yoji Yamada has created a role ideal for Mifune.
Mifune plays Dr. Ueno, a veterinarian living in a beautiful seaside community in Hokkaido with whom Tora-san (Kiyoshi Atsumi), our wandering peddler hero, strikes up an acquaintance. A gruff, long-time widower, the doctor lives in a messy cottage sorely lacking a woman's touch. The doctor is clearly lonely, but he is a proud, distant man at a crossroads in his life. He is at odds with his daughter Rinko (Keiko Takeshita) and in danger of losing the companionship of an attractive proprietress (Keiko Awaji, one of Mifune's leading ladies in the '60s) of a local snack shop. The rapport between star and director is such that one can only hope that Yamada will be able to direct Mifune in a film outside the series.
"Tora-san Goes North," which is No. 38 in the series, is a little tougher-minded and a little less sentimental than usual, which is all to the good. Never before has Tora seen so clearly what a misfit he is within his family than when he's in residence at his aunt and uncle's Tokyo sweet shop. Craving a sense of importance, Tora tends to lord it over his relatives, yet he feels guilty when he does it, which inevitably sends him back to his wanderings.
Perennial bachelor Tora may be forever awkward with his loved ones, but as anyone who knows who's seen a Tora-san picture, he's a Japanese Mary Worth, quick to take off from selling his wares to straighten out other's people's lives. He's a terrible meddler, but he's effective because he has good instincts and genuinely cares; above all, he has the time to devote himself to other people's problems. Long ago Atsumi perfected his portrayal of a man who is as hopelessly feckless in regard to himself yet wonderfully intuitive when it comes to others.
Like all the other Toras, this film has a gentle, leisurely flow, and its humor is tinged with melancholy. Once again Tora, who is smitten with the lovely Rinko, finds himself unable to practice what he preaches. Tora never quite gets the girl because he's never ready to settle down--and which also ensures the possibility of yet another chapter in his story. Yet he always succeeds in doing good for others. That Tora is neither winner nor loser, which is probably the way most people see themselves, is the real reason why his story keeps holding our interest after nearly 20 years.
Kurosawa's "Sanjuro," one of Mifune's most famous films, also opens Saturday at the Little Tokyo Cinema 2 along with a revival of the samurai movie "Baby Cart in the Land."