Thursday, October 23, 2014

Review - Our Lovable Tramp

October 23, 2014

Our Lovable Tramp – Japan, 1969

To get a sense of the sort of person Torajiro Kuruma is, imagine an amalgamation of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp and Shintaro Katsu’s wandering samurai, Zatoichi. Like these two iconic characters, Torajiro is a poor drifter with little chance of ever finding financial success, and like Zatoichi he is apt to reminisce about the beauty of nature and places from his childhood. He may even break into song and dance when his youthful energy can no longer be contained. Also, like these two characters, he is called upon to assist someone in need. However, in this aspect, his circumstances diverge from the more noble exploits of the Tramp and Zatoichi, for Torajiro is prone to be the cause of the very problems he must somehow solve.

Torajiro Kuruma is the main character in Our Lovable Tramp, a film that begins very much like a Zatoichi film. In the film’s opening moments, we hear Torajiro reflect philosophically on the power that the scent of flowers and the passage of the seasons have on his thoughts and yearnings. It is as if they were fairies from one of Shakespeare’s plays, luring him home with their magic and music. And so Torajiro returns home – to his aunt and uncle, to his younger brother, and to his younger sister. In a scene practically yanked out of a Yasujiro Ozu film, we see Torajiro sitting in front of his aunt and uncle, as if he were the rightful head of the family. He passes out gifts as a man of great wealth and influence would, and when his younger sister returns from a hard day at work, the two of them have one of those touching reunions that seems destined to elicit tears. Then Torajiro utters those memorable words: “I’m going to take a piss.”

From there, the film is a series of madcap misadventures in which Torajiro first messes things up and then must make things right again. Most of these are humorous in rather painful ways, for while Torajiro’s mayhem is never intentional, it is rather agonizing to watch, especially when it negatively affects characters as nice as some of the one’s in this film. In one of the film’s most cringe-worthy moments, Torajiro relates the story of his conception. The story involves a womanizing father, a geisha, and a great deal of alcohol, and it is rather eye-opening, offering a glimpse into what make Torajiro tick. However, as the explanation progresses, we see the shocked expressions on the faces of the well-dressed people at the table, one of whom is his sister’s potential suitor.

This is not an uncommon storyline, for characters have been ruining other people’s weddings since the beginning of comedy. In fact, we have grown accustomed to seeing such films end with a character making up for his or her mistakes by putting the wedding back on track and being forgiven for whatever foolishness brought about the disharmony in the first place. What separates Our Lovable Tramp from such films is the way the film is not content simply to resolve the conflict and then cut to the end credits. Instead, it uses the storyline involving Torajiro’s sister to show something truly heartbreaking about love and marriage – mainly, that sometimes compatibility and common ground are not enough.

Our Lovable Tramp is both heartfelt and humorous. However, I suspect that how much you laugh during the film will depend on how well you understand Japanese. This is because much of what makes Torajiro such a humorous character is the way he continually mangles the Japanese language, often using terms that are far too colloquial for the circumstances, as well as some that are more common among triad members. I know this only because the good people at AnimEigo had the foresight to provide it. However, the way they did so is slightly problematic. The information appears suddenly at the top of the screen during moments in which Tora-San appears to be trying hard to impress his audience, yet failing miserably. The explanations indeed help clarify the reasons for his failures, but I suspect that many viewers will find it difficult to read text at the top of the screen while simultaneously reading subtitles at the bottom.   

The film has a stellar cast. Kiyoshi Atsumi, with his straw hat, worn-out suitcase, and inadequate comprehension of the obvious, is a delight to behold, as is Chieko Baisho as his likeable, sweet younger sister. Ozu regular Chishu Ryu makes a nice appearance as Gozen-sama, a friend of the family, and Sachiko Mitsumoto is quite impressive as Gozen’s daughter, Fuyuko, one of the only characters who accepts Torajiro as he is. The film was directed by Yoji Yamada, who at 83 is still making quality films, one of which, The Twilight Samurai, already appears on my list of films that deserve to be seen. Our Lovable Tramp will soon join it there.

Our Lovable Tramp is a funny and poignant film. It could easily have been another one of those silly slapstick comedies about an abrasive character that causes mischief wherever he goes, yet it is more than that. It is about an indelible character that almost everyone can relate to, and this character is not sensationalized in the way that some other comedic oddballs have been. Instead, Torajiro is an underdog who refuses to see himself as such. He is a man secure in his way of life and completely unaware of his many shortfalls. He can be rude and confrontational one minute and sweet and obliging the next. And throughout it all, there is his broad smile, which conveys his incredible youthful innocence, his adolescent energy, and his adult stubbornness. It is a perfect combination. In short, Torojiro is the kind of character that audiences often want to see again, and in this case, we have been  rewarded – forty-seven more times, in fact. (on DVD)   

3 and a half stars

*Our Lovable Tramp is in Japanese with English subtitles.
*The Tora-San films have the distinction of being the longest-running series with the same actor in the title role.  

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