With 48 feature installments from 1969 to 1995, the “Tora-san” series not only set a Guinness World Record, but kept its Shochiku production studio afloat for decades.

While it was drawing fans as reliably as the sunrise, the series was derided by some critics as formulaic: In every episode the titlular peddler hero, played by Kiyoshi Atsumi, returns from his wanderings to his home in Shibamata, a neighborhood in Tokyo’s shitamachi (old downtown), where he reunites with his half-sister Sakura (Chieko Baisho) and other familiar faces. Also, in every episode a new woman comes into his life and, since Tora-san is a bumbler at love, soon leaves it.

But for all their sameness, the films reflected changes in individual lives and the wider world. A boy when he made his first appearance in 1981, Tora’s nephew Mitsuo (Hidetaka Yoshioka) had grown into a college student by his final adventure with Uncle Tora in the 1995 film, “Tora-san to the Rescue.”

Tora-san, Wish You Were Here (Otoko wa Tsurai yo Okaeri Tora-san)
Run Time 116 mins
Language Japanese
Opens Dec. 27

After Atsumi’s death in 1996, series director Yoji Yamada made the 1997 tribute film “Tora-san’s Tropical Fever Special Edition,” but that was assumed to be the end since Atsumi was irreplaceable as Tora.

Now, 22 years later, Yamada is back with the 50th “Tora-san” film, “Tora-san, Wish You Were Here.” One reason is that the series celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Another, if not officially stated, is that Yamada has embraced the series as his most enduring legacy, though he made award-winning films after it ended.

The new film, which features highlights from the series, is framed by a present-day story centering on the now middle-aged Mitsuo. But seeing it first at Shochiku and again at the 32nd Tokyo International Film Festival, I was struck by how well so many of the series’ clips, some nearly five decades old, play as standalone entities.

First, Atsumi was a brilliant comedian, though he got laughs more from his verbal dexterity than his physical clowning. This made the series harder to sell abroad, though it certainly had its overseas fans. Some of his comedic bits in the new film are understandable by anyone, such as Tora’s outrage on discovering that Sakura and the others have consumed a melon — his present from yet another trip — without leaving him a slice. Atsumi’s timing is flawless, his sputtering anger hilarious.

Much of the film, however, focuses on Mitsuo, now a successful novelist and widower with a teenage daughter, Yuri (Hiyori Sakurada). At a memorial service for his wife he recoils at the suggestion, supported by his now elderly parents (Baisho and Gin Maeda), that he remarry. But Yuri is fine with the idea and even has a candidate in mind: Mitsuo’s perky, sweet-spirited editor (Chizuru Ikewaki).

Then, at a book signing Mitsuo, reunites with Izumi (Kumiko Goto), a former girlfriend from his high school days who is now a multilingual United Nations staffer visiting Japan after a long sojourn in Europe. Her presence stirs up memories of their past —- and of Uncle Tora, who was always ready with advice about romance, though his own track record in that area was dismal.

Some of the ensuing drama is overwrought and outright cornball, just as it often was in the previous “Tora-san” entries. But the highlights from the series’ glorious past are full of an energy, warmth and laughter seldom found in Japanese films today. “Tora-san, Wish You Were Here” — indeed.

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