Yamada Yoji's directing career started with a couple of now forgotten
movies in 1968. But the next year, his career started on a path that
would make him one of the best-known directors in the country. Almost
all the 48 movies in the Tora San series were directed by Yamada
and they all starred Atsumi Kiyoshi, who made the central
character the best-known and best-loved
in Japanese movie history. Yamada won a Japan Academy Award for
one of these works in 1977 and Atsumi received a Special Prize
from the Academy in 1980.
The actual title of the series is Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo (It's Tough
Being a Man) but the movies are usually referred to by
the name of Atsumi's character. Tora San is a kind-hearted but
often misguided itinerant salesman who travels the country (at
least one film was made in every prefecture), helping people and
falling, always unsuccessfully, in love. His love interest is
referred to as the 'madonna' and the part has been played by some
of Japan's most famous actresses. Despite the fact that his fortunes
never really change for the better, Tora San is happy with his
freewheeling lifestyle. As such, he is the antithesis of the workaholic
salaryman. The formula, which was a combination of road movie,
romance, comedy and nostalgia, guaranteed box-office success every
time. The series continued until Atsumi's death in 1996.
Although Yamada is best known for the Tora-san movies, he has also managed
to fit in a few other major works along the way. His 1989 Downtown Heroes
was entered for the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. 2003
saw his first ever period drama, Tasogare Seibei (Twilight Samurai), which
became the first in a samurai trilogy. It was followed in 2004 by Kakushi-ken:
Oni no Tsume (Hidden Sword: Demon's Talons) - both of these movies competed unsuccessfully
at Berlin - and Bushi no Ichibun, starring SMAP heart-throb
Kimura Takuya in his first samurai role, in late 2006. "Tasogare...", featuring former
martial arts star Sanada Hiroyuki and Miyazawa
Rie, enjoying a golden patch in her turbulent career, won several awards at
home and abroad. "Bushi..." received nominations in all 13 award categories for the
Japan Academy Awards, though Kimura turned down his nomination.
2008 saw Yamada's sixth entry at Berlin, and his fourth attempt at the Golden Bear.
"Kaabee" (Kabei - Our Mother) brought him together again with another icon of postwar
Japanese cinema, actress Yoshinaga Sayuri. Long portrayed as an iconic mother figure,
Yoshinaga has appeared in well over 100 movies, including two in the Tora-san series in the 1970s.
"Kaabee" is a more recent historical drama, with Yoshinaga playing a mother raising her two children
in wartime Tokyo as she awaits the return from prison of her anti-war husband.
Yamada never lost his love for light comedy, though. In the 1990's he made the Gakko
(A Class to Remember) series, and he has been a writer on the long-running Tsuri Baka Nisshi
(Fishing Fool) comedy series that stars Nishida Takayuki and is the closest thing these days to Tora-san.