“Tora-san’s Salad Date Memorial” (at the Little Tokyo Cinema 1) takes its curious title from a young girl’s poem in tribute to the lovable itinerant peddler, written after she has prepared a tossed salad for him. If that title sounds awkward in English, nothing else about this endearing film is. Indeed, it is a double milestone, as it is No. 40 in the series, which is now 20 years old.
By now it is pretty clear why the Tora-sans have made the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s longest-running movie series. Tora is never victorious, yet he is never defeated, which is surely why he offers such wide identification. Anchored by his loving and patient relatives in Tokyo, Tora feels free to peddle his wares wherever his wanderings take him. He is always pressing on, always full of hope and kindness for those in need. Director Yoji Yamada and his co-writer Yoshitaka Asama tell essentially the same story every time: Tora helps someone in distress, and he becomes smitten by a new woman in his life. They get away with it because of a judicious blend of sentimentality and tough-mindedness. Remarkably, there’s no falling off in quality of the Tora-sans, for the gifted Yamada always deepens his understanding of human nature and his ability in expressing it.
This time, Tora (Kiyoshi Atsumi) is not merely smitten but in danger of falling seriously in love. Befriending an elderly, dying woman in a beautiful small city in the mountains, a typically picturesque Yamada setting, he meets her doctor (Yoshiko Mita), an elegant, lonely widow. She is able to appreciate the diamond in the rough that Tora is--and she is even sexually attracted to him (which is unusual for Tora), but you’ve got to be dubious about them being able to overcome the obstacles of class and sophistication, not to mention Tora’s wanderlust. (It’s the doctor’s niece, a Waseda University student, who writes the poem to him; her character is inspired by Machi Tawara, a student whose 1987 poetry collection was a best seller in Japan.)
In any event, “Tora-san’s Salad Date Memorial” (Times-rated Family) is sure to warm the hearts of Tora’s fans. It also contains one of the most inspired comic moments in the entire series. Wandering into a lecture on the Industrial Revolution at Waseda, the irrepressible Tora at first reveals his total ignorance of the subject yet proceeds to tell us how James Watt went about inventing the steam engine. Tora’s cockeyed imaginativeness would strike envy in the heart of Rube Goldberg.