top of page

Film Review: Tora-san, Wish You Were Here! (2019) - 影評《男人之苦 - 寅次郎返嚟啦!》

Updated: Nov 7, 2023

FILE PHOTO: Screening of Tora-san, Wish You Were Here! (2019)  ©Ryota Nakanishi
FILE PHOTO: Screening of Tora-san, Wish You Were Here! (2019) ©Ryota Nakanishi

''Completed film perfectly reflects human relationships of its team (both cast and crew).''

- Dir. Yoji Yamada


Japan's last film maestro Dir. Yoji Yamada (1931-)'s milestone is the world's most long-lived genre film franchise 'It's Tough Being a Man'' (Total 50 films; 1969-2019) which starred Kiyoshi Atsumi (1928-1996) as the hapless protagonist, one of the most famous movie characters in Japan, Torajiro who is a man with wanderlust and antics from the old Japanese style town, Shibamata in Katsushika, Tokyo. In where, I met Dir. Yoji Yamada at the famous Shibamata Taishakuten Daikyoji Temple in 2015. Personally, I love that old little town as an oasis in the middle of spiritual desert of Tokyo.

Tora-san, Wish You Were Here! (2019) did location shooting at Shibamata station on the Keisei Kanamachi Line; Taishakuten-Sando and Shibamata Taishakuten, though the most of scenes were obviously shot at sound stage at Toho Studio.

Only a few shots were from Shibamata even Tora-san family house-restaurant Kurumaya (the model is the real restaurant Takagiyaroho) was rebuilt in the sound stage entirely.

My favourite town in the entire Kanto Region where we can revive memory of ''good old days'' environmental atmosphere that had existed before savage neoliberal policies ruin Japanese economy and especially the traditional lifestyle of the working class and petty bourgeoisie.

In short, Shibamata is the last remnant of old Edo neighbour where does not belong to the dystopia in our minds visually. Like the unfinished film project ¡Que viva México! (Dir. Sergei Eisenstein; 1932; 1979), geographical differences embody different historical eras and features of the country, Shibamata embodies the old Edo era.

Each instalment is filled with starlets and guest stars from different film studios due to the end of Five-Company Agreement in the late 1960s. A basic core story of Tora-san franchise is depicted as Torajiro's failure in love with starlets who called 'Madonnas' during the nationwide travel in each film episode. Thus, this last instalment is not an actual Tora-san film because of the absence of Tora-san as the protagonist.

In this case, Yoji Yamada took the similar narrative solution with Dir. Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru (1952). In which, the last half of the film is staged at funeral of the protagonist and develops rest of the story with intercuts and flashbacks of interactions between the diseased protagonist and principal characters.

The same unique narrative structure was applied by Yoji Yamada for this last instalment yet Torajiro is not in the centre of the story to push any narrative by his action. It's his nephew Mitsuo Suwa (Hidetaka Yoshioka) who is the real protagonist of this story.

Undoubtedly, ''It's Tough Being a Man'' is the most important genre film franchise for the major Japanese film studio Shochiku. Indeed, Yoji Yamada unit is the most important filmmaker team after true film maestros Yasujiro Ozu (1903-63) and Masaki Kobayashi (1916-96) for Shochiku. Unlike stubborn art film-dogmatists taught, all of them were actually in the traditional influence of Hollywood films imported in Japan, and they made actual genre films in the Japanese market for the major studio successfully. The qualified successor of Yasujiro Ozu must be Dir. Yoji Yamada. Whatever art film critics depict other world filmmakers as privileged aristocratic successors of Ozu legacy, decades-long ''It's Tough Being a Man'' comedy franchise proved that who really deserves the claim.

Japanese film history began from 1896 when Thomas Alva Edison's Kinetoscope screening was held at Koube by a gun merchant Shinji Takahashi. Then, the first Japanese film was created by a photographer Shirou Asano in 1898. Later, Shochiku started film production and established the star system that imitated Hollywood in 1920. Unlike Hollywood, a third of Japanese films were still silent movies even in 1938 after the first full talkie film The Neighbour's Wife and Mine (1931).

Undoubtedly Japan had golden eras in its film history, at least four times (officially three times). One was 1930s (see Sisters of the Gion; Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, 1936) before the World War 2 began; the second was 1950s (see Rashomon; Dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1950) until 1963 when the total numbers of cinema audiences drastically decreased more than a half of 1958 after a decade of installation of television since 1953; the third was undoubtedly 1980s (see Teito Monogatari; Dir. Akio Jissoji; 1988 ; also Tampopo; Dir. Juzo Itami; 1985 and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind; Dir. Hayao Miyazaki; 1984) when Japan mostly closed to catch up with and exceed both Hollywood and Hong Kong films during the last golden era of Japanese economy. 1980s was ambitiously marked with numerous Hollywood or Hong Kong joint projects. Aesthetically, it can be seen as one of thriving chapters of Japanese film history.

The forth was from 2006 to 2019 (see Bay side Shakedown franchise; Dir. Katsuyuki Motohiro; 1998-2012). In this era, advertisement giants and private television stations (not its affiliated production companies) dominated and led film productions and its commercial marketing with cinema complex chain distributors, major film studios. Especially 2006 was its turning point that Japan screened total 821 films which was the biggest record since 1955; number of screens exceeded 3,000 (3062 screens) which was also the breaking record since 1970s. Then as later, domestic market share against imported films reached its peak in 2012 that Japanese film share hit 65.7%.

Update: So called a 'market share against foreign films' here means box office results not the number of annual production however originally it should have meant the production share against foreign films in Japan. As this review predicted, Japan's latest ''golden era'' ended in 2019 as Japanese film production fell down to 506 films from 689 films against 511 imported films in 2020.

In 2019, total Japanese film production was 689 films screened; total attendance of audiences at cinemas was 194,910,000; the market share against foreign films was 54.4%; the number of cinemas where showed both imported and domestic films was 3,583 screens according to Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan, Inc.. The total box office hit record was the highest one in 2019 which marked 261,180, 000, 000 yen. However only 40 Japanese films were box office hits (17%) with more than one billion yen box office record. Above one million dollar production cost is seemed as a blockbuster in the Japanese film production scale and above one billion yen hit is considered as box office hit. Moreover there are roughly 689 film production teams made the films in 2019 (the number of film production is basically the number of production units) and yet it did not mean that 365 days of work provided for each team. Basically different teams engaged in domestic production quite separately. Whatever the details of the production process, Japan seems to be independent from Hollywood film aggressions in terms of its domestic market share though it's actually declining gradually in terms of its market share, furthermore COVID-19 pandemic will end the illusion of the golden era in 2020. Besides this, the average admission fee is also questionable that average admission fee is 1,800 yen for adults generally but it states only 1,340 yen unexpectedly. It means admissions of children and elderly people pushed the average to the relatively low point.


About UNHCR and its reality, one of the principal characters of this film, Izumi Bruna (played by Kumiko Goto) works for UNHCR. Politically, Tora-san, Wish You Were Here (2019) is an ideological reflection of petty bourgeoisie and no social comment made by Yoji Yamada on Japanese political issues. he only mentioned the grim state of the entire society ambiguously in order to avoid annoying both ruling parties and opposition.

In fact, UNHCR is on the US side to destabilise Syria by helping the notorious terrorist group the White Helmets under the name of 'humanitarian aid for poor refugees.' Unerring source is their own report on Syria. How they react to the news from Syria inevitably proves their political stance in the war that caused by US itself. Thus, this film won't offend Abe regime and US side politically. Furthermore, it's more close to the establishment than any Japanese opposition party unfortunately. UNHCR published a brief on July 23, 2018:


Syrian ‘White Helmets’ evacuated to Jordan. Over 100 Syrian rescue workers and their families were evacuated from southern Syria into Jordan on Saturday night at the request of several Western powers, BBC reported Sunday. According to VOA, Jordan said it authorized the rescue mission , which was carried out by the Israeli Defense Force, on the condition that the 422 evacuees would be resettled in Britain, Germany and Canada within three months. Raed Saleh, head of the Syria Civil Defense, better known as the White Helmets, said on Twitter that they had been “surrounded in a dangerous region”. In a statement on Sunday UNHCR said it “is supporting their temporary stay in anticipation of their onward relocation to third countries”. “White Helmets have been the target of attacks and, due to their high profile, we judged that, in these particular circumstances, the volunteers required immediate protection,” Britain’s foreign secretary and international development secretary said in a joint statement on Sunday. On Friday UNHCR appealed for safe passage for some 140,000 Syrians displaced by fighting in Daraa and Quneitra provinces.



Of the three act structure, it indicates that this film could have been shorten to less than 116 mins. Perhaps, it is due to the too many flashbacks of Tora-san footage from previous instalments in the series. From an editorial point of view, that is the main reason of dullness of this film.


Exposition: New novelist Mitsuo Suwa (Hidetaka Yoshioka) lives with his daughter who is in her 3rd grade at a junior high school, Yuri Suwa (Hiyori Sakurada). One day Mitsuo goes back to Shibamata for his deceased wife's sixth anniversary of a death at Kurumaya. His parents Sakura Suwa (Chieko Baisho), Hiroshi Suwa (Gin Maeda) and relatives, old neighbours gathered together. Mitsuo's trauma on the lost love with Izumi (Kumiko Goto) during his childhood haunts him even at that kind of occasion, and later it's further complicated while neighbour Akemi (Jun Miho) ruthlessly suggests Mitsuo for considering his second marriage with someone he likes.

Inciting Incident: Mitsuo's dreaming girl Izumi (Kumiko Goto) suddenly appears at his autograph session at Yaesu Book Centre during Izumi's three days off from the UNHCR fund-raising campaign trip in Tokyo.

End of ACT1: Mitsuo and Izumi decide to go to Jinbo-cho for a talk where ex-lover of Tora-san, Lily (Ruriko Asaoka) manages a cafe.


Complication: Encounter with Lily (Ruriko Asaoka) and her shared memory of life with Torajiro in Amami-Oshima make Mitsuo to come up with an idea to suggest Izumi to meet her father who Izumi dislikes most due to the break-up of her family and later led to her unexpected departure to Europe. Izumi's personal dilemma reappears.

Midpoint: After meeting with Lily, Mitsuo and Izumi return to Kurumaya where Izumi makes a brave decision to meet his father who stays at sanatorium in the Miura Peninsula after conversation with Mitsuo and his parents. Mitsuo also decides driving her to the remote area in Kanagawa prefecture.

End of ACT2: Izumi meets her divorced parents, Ayako Hara (Mari Natsuki) and dying father Kazuo Oikawa (Isao Hashizume) at sanatorium however Izumi and Ayako argue about who taking care of the dying Kazuo after Izumi's apology for leaving him alone due to her job and family life abroad.


Final Confrontation: On the day of Izumi's departure, Mitsuo and Izumi are at Narita Airport. The moment of truth arrives for both principal characters.

Solution: Mitsuo tells Izumi that his wife was dead already yet did decide not informing Izumi about it for six years in order to not give her any inner burden because he knows both still love with each other despite their already established families in different countries. Mitsuo finally decides taking care of her father after her departure.

End of ACT3:Mitsuo agrees with his business partner, editor of publisher who is in charge of his book sales, also a close caretaker of his daughter, Setsuko Takano (Chizuru Ikewaki) about the new book project.


This analysis only captured the decisive plots in the entire structure yet it proved that this Torajiro film is not about Torajiro even it can be established without numerous Torajiro footage inserted. Time ratio of the three act structure is unbalanced because of it. As the result, for example, ACT1 is longer than ACT2 and yet ACT1 did not introduce all important characters including Izumi's parents.

In the sense, this film is not a total systematical creation like Hollywood studio factories but it is more affected by director's individual control. If Hollywood studio edits it, they will cut most of the inserts of Torajiro and make it more Mitsuo-centralised story structure.

Yes, this is still a Mitsuo film not Torajiro film anymore. Even though this film was structurally overloaded in order to exploit legacy of Torajiro, it won't intervene audiences from emotional involvement on the fate of Mitsuo and Izumi. At the last moment, Mitsuo becomes an imaginary family member of Izumi because he takes care of her father despite no blood line or legitimate family relationship with Izumi and her father. This is more unique and profound approach to the concept of family than Tokyo Story (Dir. Yasujiro Ozu; 1953).

Yoji Yamada talks about the core concept of the film.


This film was shot by single camera work and most of the scenes were created at sound stage. Moreover the most important feature is the use of traditional 35mm film rolls to shoot the entire film. Yoji Yamada uses Kodak film, develops it at TOKYO LABORATORY LTD. and then digitally intermediates it at IMAGICA. This is the custom of Japanese filmmaking for decades. Nothing new but the use of traditional film rolls is nowadays gorgeous enough. Only privileged filmmakers can make their new films in the most traditional way such as Takeshi Kitano and Yoji Yamada.

The Kodak film's superiority was shown at the sunset scene at the Miura Peninsula. We can see different layers and degrees of darkness and lightness that not typical in HD and 4K imageries. Simply it closes to human eyes. Indeed, traditional film does not fit the audiences anymore because we require more digitally enhanced clearness not analogue imageries. The material itself does not make a film cinematic. Indeed, not 95% but 99% of Japanese films are digitally made by video format as part of development of productivity in filmmaking. The use of traditional film is reactionary under the circumstances historically.

Anyway, the use of film can be justified on this specific film project that intercuts so many previous footage of Torajiro from decades old instalments to adjust tone and unify cinematic impression throughout the film as many sequences as possible. However we still able to identify the difference quite visually. This is not only a photographical consideration but it's also an editorial consideration seriously.

Nevertheless, it did not harm the entire quality of this well-made feature film of the film maestro.

For film editing, like Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yoji Yamada also recognises intrinsic importance of film editing despite anti-montage dogmatists who politically embrace the early misconception and antagonistic bias of the French film critic Andre Bazin.

In 2006, Yoji Yamada's annual film lecture was held at Chihiro Art Museum. Yoji Yamada taught the montage theory with Battleship Potemkin (Dir. Sergei Eisenstein; 1925); Rope (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock; 1948) ; The Birds (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock; 1963) and JAWS (Dir. Steven Spielberg; 1975).

Yoji Yamada thinks the most famous sequence on the Potemkin Stairs, or Potemkin Steps, a giant stairway in Odessa, Ukraine as an example of how Eisenstein firmly established the art of film montage in his master piece. Especially depiction of the crumbling stroller on the steps. Eisenstein used various short shots to bring audiences through the Tsarist oppression cinematically. Furthermore it's very powerful aesthetically.

Alfred Hitchcock imitated the Odessa sequence in the sequence of the bird attack on children on the downhill road in The Birds (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock; 1963); Steven Spielberg was also seemed to learn the Odessa sequence for shooting the shark attack sequence in which he attached a camera to the pillar. As the result, editing was planned during the shooting more consciously.

Yoji Yamada's definition of montage is that expressing a situation multidimensionally by cuts. This is also what George A Romero called ''cubist'' art of film editing.


Mechanically, the montage sequence in Tora-san, Wish You Were Here! (2019) is the repetitive flashback sequence in which Mitsuo meets Izumi at beach in childhood. When Mitsuo writes the kanji of ''Izumi'' on the sand beach, it intercuts with his miswriting of customer name on the book at the autograph session. That's a beautiful shape/action match cut between handwriting of the kanji ''Izumi'' on the different materials in different layers of fictional reality. This intercut is the best one throughout the entire film in terms of techniques. A sheer aesthetic contrast with any art filmmakers of Taiwan.

In conclusion, Dir. Yoji Yamada is undoubtedly the most qualified successor of Dir. Yasujiro Ozu for both Shochiku and the entire Japanese film history. Tora-san, Wish You Were Here!(2019) is more advanced both ethically and emotionally than the masterpiece Tokyo Story (Dir. Yasujiro Ozu; 1953). Both directors made synthesis of drama and tragedy. This film is also not a pure tragedy, it's a solution to the family tragedy. It's unlike absolute tragedies of Taiwan New Wave film crxps that had nothing to do with tradition and legacy of Yasujiro Ozu and our film culture.

Audiences actually experience catalysis at the end of this film, and traumas of both Mitsuo and Izumi are finally solved through drama. It is a proof of being a good art work. Highly recommended.




Any part of this report may be disseminated without permission, provided attribution to the professional film writer Ryota Nakanishi as author and a link to is provided.

This film article is for educational purpose only.

Copyright Disclaimer Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for "fair use" for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favour of fair use.


bottom of page