I always felt like a little bit of a fraud calling myself a fan of Japanese film and yet never having seen even one "Tora-san" ("Otoko wa Tsurai yo!" or "It's Tough Being a Man") flick. The 48-film series holds the Guinness book record for being the longest running film series staring the same actor, and is an integral part of Japanese film. Fortunately, with Animeigo's box set release of the first four films in the series, that gap has been remedied.
It is impossible to underestimate the importance of the "Tora san" film series. Released twice a year between 1969-1995, the films were a stable and perennial part of Japanese movie life. One new film in August, and one new film in December, the plots and characters of the films almost never varied, and had the same comfortable familiarity of a seasonal food. Mother's pumpkin pie recipe never changed, but you still looked forward to it every Thanksgiving. That's how it was with "Tora san."
Every book on Japanese film, from Donald Richie's seminal A Hundred Years of Japanese Film to Mark Schilling's Contemporary Japanese Film has something to say about the ragged drifter in his battered hat and suitcase full of mischief. Some see the "Tora san" films as an exercise in harmless sentimental nostalgia, with the unique merit of longevity, while some, like Alex Kerr in his book Dogs and Demons, see the "Tora san" series as a symptom of the death of creativity in Japanese film and a symbol of everything he hates.
Series director Yamada Yoji has recently stepped into the international spotlight with his "Samurai Trilogy" (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, Love and Honor), but to most of Japan he is known as the director of the Tora san series. Yamada directed all but two of the 48-film series, building an actor/director relationship with actor Atsumi Kiyoshi unparallel in the history of cinema.
Watching the films for the first time, they are much different than I expected. Tora san himself is played by Atsumi Kiyoshi, who would win the prestigious National Merit Award for his role, one of only fifteen people to be honored with the award, and only the second actor (the other being Hasegawa Kazuo (Revenge of a Kabuki Actor). Far from the good-natured bumbling "holy fool" I expected, Tora san is a drifting yakuza, making his living off of small-time fortune-telling scams and other hustles. Quick to anger, and not above smacking his little sister in the face when he is angry, Tora san didn't fit up to the image of "lovable loser" I was expecting, which gives him far more depth than a one-note character. He has a good heart, and tries to do the best for those around him, but more often than not his blustering gets in the way. Tora san has an edge to him.
The films all follow a somewhat standard plot, with Tora san traveling around famous spots in Japan, falling in love with some local beauty, and inevitably becoming the unwitting match-maker between the beauty (always known as Tora's "Madonnas" in Japanese) and an old boyfriend who arrives on the scene at the same time. The credits usually roll with happiness all around, and only Tora san carrying the pain in his heart for his lost love. At least until the next film when a new beauty steps in with the next film!
Watching a single woman get introduced in a "Tora-san" is like watching Lucy set up the football for Charlie Brown. You know that she will pull the ball away at the last minute, and Charlie Brown will wind up on his back, but you can't help but admire the spirit of "giving it another try" and never just accepting your fate. I think that is what the Japanese loved the most about "Tora san." No matter how many times his Madonna was pulled away at the last minute, Tora san just shouldered his pack, tightened his belly band and moved on, giving his all to the next lass who crossed his path.
The supporting cast of the "Tora san" films also makes a great contribution to the series. After every adventure Tora san eventually winds up back at the sweet shop in Shibamata, Katsushika, Tokyo, where his family is waiting. The family adds some nice continuity to the films, as his sister Sakura gets married, has a child and the child grows up on the stage of "Tora san." The supporting cast gives a sense of time passing, and takes the series away from being merely repetitive.
This box set by Animeigo contains the first four films:
Our Lovable Tramp - The first film in the series has Tora san returning home to a family he hasn't seen since he was a little boy. He tries his best to integrate himself into the family, even serving as a chaperone for his little sister's matchmaking ceremony, but his gruff yakuza ways push everyone away. It doesn't help that Tora san has fallen in love with a beautiful shrine attendant, and pursues her in his own way. Look for Ryu Chishu (Tokyo Story) and Shimura Takeshi (Ikiru) making surprise appearances in this one!
Tora-san's Cherished Mother - Tora san is found wandering in Kyoto, where he heard a rumor that his mother is still alive and working somewhere called the Grand Hotel. Envisioning a touching reunion, Tora san is crushed to find that his mother is a cruel old woman, and the Grand Hotel is nothing more than a love hotel with a fancy name. Along the way, he gets advice from an English teacher who knew Tora san as a boy, and falls in love with his teacher's daughter.
Tora-san, His Tender Love - Tora san tests his families patience too much by convincing a potential marriage prospect for Tora san to marry someone else, and then spending the families money on the wedding. Chased out of the house, Tora heads out sad and alone. Meanwhile, his aunt and uncle decide to take a long-overdue vacation to a hot spring resort in the mountains. Looking forward to rest and relaxation, who should they find but Tora san, working at the resort and in love with the owner, whose old-time flame just happens to be in town.
Tora-san's Grand Scheme - Tora san offers a free trip to Hawaii to his Aunt and Uncle to thank them for taking care of him as a young boy and to make up for the trouble he has caused them. But with Tora san making the plans, you know something is going to go wrong! And you can bet there will be a beautiful single involved to win and spurn Tora san's heart.
I am really glad that it is Animeigo that is releasing the "Tora san" films. No other DVD company that I know of puts so much effort and love into their releases, offering multiple subtitle options (including Animeigo's "Full Subtitle" selection that gives cultural notes along with translated dialog), a book filled with essays on Tora san (including one from Donald Richie himself) , film expert commentary and a host of other features. Animeigo takes treasures like the "Tora san" series that have been neglected and unavailable to Western audiences for decades and releases them with the pomp and circumstances they deserve.
Thanks Animeigo! If you are a Japanese film fan, then you are going to want to check out this "Tora san Box set." And then you are going to want the next set. And the next. And the next...