Tora-san’s Runaway returned to the silver screen 49 years later after its 1970’s debut in crisp 4K at New York City’s Japan Society last Friday. The dark overtone message of the comedy film? Hard work doesn’t necessarily pay off at all. Romantic, fairy tale style endings are for the imagination. Tora-san’s imagination that is…
This article contains spoilers for Tora-san’s Runaway.
Tora-san’s Runaway is an exhibit of fallacy in the promise of hard work always paying off. Throughout the film, lead character Torajirō Kuruma is pushed by his sister Sakura Suwa to make an honest living. That a man is meant to toil under the sweat of his brow. She urges Tora-San to stop living day-to-day, lackadaisically wandering through life, with no true planning for the future.
Tora-san takes his sister’s words to heart, knowing she wants the best for him… In fact, Tora-san takes the words so literally, he desires a job where he ‘can sweat and become oily’ over the course of the work day. Thus, Tora-san played by star Kiyoshi Atsumi, decides to reform his street life ways, first superficially through wearing a sharp suit and hat. Then eventually by taking a job selling fried Tofu. More on that later!
Initially, he consults with his uncle Tatsuzō, aunt Tsune, and sister Sakura on the most fitting job for him over dinner. His uncle suggests tempura if he wants to get “oily working” but Tora-san waves the idea off. Making it clear he dislikes tempura. Tora-san’s uncle is already skeptical of Tora-san’s grand, seemingly overnight promise to change…
Lack of uncle Tatsuzō’s blessings for Tora-san
Tatsuzō, played by Shin Morikawa, is not exactly the biggest supporter of Torajirō, outside of getting him out of the house. At the onset of the film, Tora-san’s aunt plays a relatively cruel practical joke on him… Informing Tora his uncle was about to pass on over a phone call.
Tora-san wants to do right by his uncle, and actually sets up all funeral arrangements… Only to discover his uncle is completely fine and well, just sleeping. As a result, his uncle is embarrassed by local town residents arriving to grieve and pay their respects.Though Tora-san’s uncle is mad at his wife for leading the practical joke in the first place, he is furious at Tora-san. Stating he’d rather be dead that have to see him. Even getting a full blown makeshift rope noose around his neck to make a statement. A vulnerable, weakened Tora-san decides to leave but more than hints he’d like someone to stop him, and sister Sakura [Chieko Baisho] obliges.
Why Tora-san really decides to change his life
Tatsuzō later goes to see his old boss, who’s actually dying… And has a railroad conductor son who refuses to see him. At first, Torajiro pushes and pushes for the railroad conductor to go with him and his vagabond street pal to see his dying boss. However, after the railroad conductor speaks of how he went to see his father once in his youth, only to see his dark side, beating on someone… Tora-san gives up silently. This moment changes Tora-san’s life. His boss passes on and never sees his flesh and blood to apologize, which his son called a selfish demand.
Tora-san tells his fellow vagabond street pal to leave, go back home to his father. In fact, hitting him when he wants to stay with Tora-san. From this point forward, Tora-san returns to his sister’s words and wants to be the type of person she spoke of. Instead of drifting through life and ending up like his boss.
Reality Hits for Torajirō Kuruma
After being rejected for several local jobs post-reform, Tora-san leaves in shame to the next town over. There the people don’t know of his reputation, and he gets a job as a bicycle-riding fried tofu salesman. The true apple of his eye, however? His new boss’ peer-aged daughter, Setsuko [Aiko Nagayama] who seems to take a liking to Tora-san. She laughs at all his jokes and visits him each night. Tora-san works harder than ever, and proudly tells his sister he might settle there over the phone.
Everything seems to be going in storybook fashion for Tora-san, his sister was right all along… Or was she?
A local tofu costumer arrives for dinner one night when Torajirō is at his most happiest… Torajirō had been asked the prior night if he’d be willing to stay on with the family’s Tofu business on permanent basis instead of as a replacement. When he said yes, Setsuko was grinning from ear to ear, telling Tora-san how happy he’d made her.
Tora-san comments at his most confident that the tofu costumer reminds him a lot of his sister Sakura’s husband Hiroshi [Gin Maeda]. A smiling Setsuko then explains how she and the ‘customer’ (a railroad conductor) had actually been meaning to get married for a while now. However, they needed a replacement at her mother’s tofu shop. Setsuko’s mother Tomiko [Tokuko Sugiyama] tells Torajirō they need to find a nice girl for him too, what type does he like? He replies, “someone like you” joking but crushed.
Moonlight Devastation and a Broken Heart
The next day, a devastated Tora-san heads back home. His sister chases him down as he leaves his uncle’s residence for a moonlight aimless walk. Tora-san earnestly tells her how he tried so hard but the honest life is not for him, holding back tears. He reunites with his younger vagabond pal the next day on the beach.
The more Tora-san attempted to escape his fate, the more life pulled him right back on track to his destiny. No happy ending to be found. In fact, Setsuko seems partially oblivious why Tora-san left in the middle of the night. Only starting to comprehend the feelings Torajirō held for her… But she does not go searching for him in some kind of audience warming epiphany. Rather, the credits roll just as Tora returns to the comfort of his old life. Hard work failing him.
The 4K Restoration Film Screening of Tora-San’s Runaway occurred on November 1, 2019 in New York City’s Japan Society. A new 4k screening of film, Tora-san Meets His Lordship, will be playing at Japan Society on December 6, 2019 at 7 p.m. EST. Purchase tickets to the event at this link.
Follow along Japan Society’s busy Film Schedule as part of their Tokyo Stories: Japan in the Global Imagination series.