Tora-san, Orangina, and Me (Part 1)
April 5, 2012
Orangina is a popular soft drink originating in France and Algeria. It’s popular throughout Europe but I didn’t discover it until around 2001, when I was working at MGM in Santa Monica, frequented Bay Cities Deli down the street, and started unwisely pairing it with the Reubens I’d often buy for lunch.
In 2009 Orangina was sold to the Japanese brewer Suntory, but only now is it being marketed here. A surprising campaign accompanies its launch:
Foreigners may find this perplexing, but amused Japanese instantly recognize this as a spoof of Yoji Yamada’s “Tora-san” film series, which begat an astounding 48 feature films produced between 1969 and 1993. In the commercial handsome Gere is more or less portraying Tora-san himself, played in the original films by the irreplaceable Kiyoshi Atsumi. Here’s a trailer for the very first one, complete with English subtitles:
(The first four movies are all available on DVD, with English subtitles, and I provide an audio commentary to the first one. You can order it here.)
Here’s another trailer (no English subtitles, alas) for Tora-san’s Dream of Spring (1979), an unusual entry in that it was co-written by Leonard Schrader (Paul’s brother), and features American character actor Herb Edelman as a kind of American Tora-san, Michael Jordan (!). Kyoko Kagawa co-stars. Incidentally, I was on the bridge Edelman is seen crossing only yesterday.
You’ll note that in the world of Tora-san, characters often meet in one part of the country, only to accidentally bump into one another again somewhere else. This always struck me as highly improbable. Japan, after all, has a population of about 100 million people, and it isn’t exactly a tiny little island. This is important to remember in light of what comes next.
Back around January 2000 I had the chance to interview Tora-san’s creator, writer-director Yoji Yamada, for my book on Kurosawa and Mifune. Mr. Yamada was himself in the midst of writing a new script, and we met at the traditional ryokan in Tokyo he apparently often stays at when writing. We had a great interview, and we kept in touch. I wrote to him occasionally, and we exchanged New Year’s cards. To my surprise he always wrote back, often fairly lengthly, hand-written replies.
When, a little less than two years later, Yukiyo and I decided to get married in a traditional ceremony on her home island of Amami Oshima, we briefly toyed with the idea of inviting Mr. Yamada to be our guest of honor. (Tora-san indirectly brought us together, but that’s another story.) If the ceremony had been held in Tokyo we might just have invited him, but Amami was about as far from Tokyo as you could get and still be in Japan, a tiny, distant southern island about halfway between Kagoshima and Okinawa. Instead we opted for a local university professor Yukiyo’s mother coveted but who otherwise was a complete stranger. His indescribably dull speech (in which he misread Yukiyo’s name several times as “Sachiyo”) was the only rain on that otherwise memorable parade.
The next morning Yukiyo and I decided to take several wedding guests (including my younger sister and a close friend who’d flown all the way from America) to the other, even more remote side of the island, to see Amami’s famous coral reefs via a glass-bottom boat. Setouchi is small and isolated, with a population of barely 10,000.
We piled out of the car, began walking toward the harbor when behind us a voice said, “Suchuaato?” (That’s how my name sounds in Japanese)
I turned around and, yep, it was Mr. Yamada. Just like in the Tora-san films. It turns out we was in Setouchi to deliver a speech at a local community hall. We were all quite flabbergasted and it’s a Tora-san moment I’ll always treasure.
(Tomorrow, Part 2)