Let’s Begin the Year of Tora-san with Some Background

I have seen only one of them. They all follow more or less the same story line, in which an everyman gets a few weeks off from his job, visits his family in their old neighborhood, doesn’t get along with them very well, and then decides to go on vacation to a famous Japanese tourist area. While there, he meets a beautiful girl and falls in love with her, but the romance never works out, and he ends up helping her in some way and then returning to his lonely bachelor life. Audiences enjoyed the predictability of this plot, which was repeated with variations, in film after film.

Roger Ebert

Until four or so years ago, I had only seen one film in the Otoko wa Tsurai Yo series in a Japanese pop culture class taught by Miriam Silverberg. (The series title is known in English as It’s Tough Being a Man, but everywhere you go, both in English and Japanese, everyone just calls it after that “everyman”, actually a tekiya, a travelling salesman/peddler selling things you probably don’t need that are also probably not what he says they are portrayed by Kiyoshi Atsumi, Tora-san). At the time I was more enamored by flashy, contemporary things, even though Tora-san 48 came out in December of 1995, while I was still in college and after my first trip to Japan that summer. For years, my idea of Tora-san though was basically what Ebert’s was. I would see bits and pieces on TV and say, hey, that’s Tora-san, I know him. Ha Ha Ha. And then turn the channel.

But then about 4 years ago, I decided to watch the first film and shortly after decided to visit Shibamata. My age and my level of Japanese were two factors, but who knows what else clicked, but I decided to watch all 48 before visiting Shibamata again. I completed that by the end of the year and I can pretty much divide my life into the before Tora-san and after Tora-san. (Here is an interview in Japanese about what I was thinking about the series just after the post Tora-san era had begun for me.)

So when Shochiku and the director behind the whole series, Yoji Yamada, announced that the fiftieth anniversary of the Tora-san series would be celebrated by the release of a Tora-san film, the fiftieth in the series, well, I was a bit excited, to say the least. And I decided to celebrate it by watching all the whole series again before walking into the theater on the 27th of December, 2019, to watch Tora-san 50.

When I first watched them in order from beginning to end and became more and more enamored by the series, I began to tweet out my thoughts, and even wrote up some blog posts by the end. There always seemed to be a few people interested so hopefully a few thoughts about each film will find their way to people who are interest and spark some conversations about the films.

However, there is not a whole lot on the Tora-san films themselves. Often it is something superficial as Ebert, as dismissive as Alex Kerr, or they are used as examples of Japanese-ness somewhere deep in an academic journal article which is blocked from those of us without access to that world. There are a few articles and reviews here or there that take the films seriously and as we go through the series I will link to them here, but they are few in number, to be sure.

In Japanese, though, there are shelves and shelves of books written on the films. One is by film critic Hiedo Yoshimura, in his book Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo, Miryoku Daizen, inelegantly translated on the cover of the book as Otoko Wa Tsurayo A Complete to the Charm. He divides the film series into four periods

The first period he describes as “The Early Years” are eight films, released just over a two and a half-year period. They original actor who played the role of Tora’s uncle, Shin Morikawa, is in them. The series was just finding its footing here and no one at the time expected it to be on going for another 20 plus years.

The second period, which he places from the 9th to the 17th, is what he calls the “High Period”. This starts from 9, which stars Sayuri Yoshinaga, the film that was the big breakthrough to the seiries, and ends with 17, which co-stared Jukichi Uno
and is seen as one of the best films of the series, and in between has Ruriko Asaoka’s first two appearances as Lily. The Tora-san series was still fresh, everyone was still young and energetic, and this is also when the summer obon and winter New Year’s alternating release pattern began.

The third period is the longest, by Yoshimura’s count from 18 and 37, which he calls the “Searching Period”. This 10 year period of about 20 films is the time that films probably most closely, where films always came out twice a year, and when, as Yoshimura points out, fans switch from hoping Tora settles down to wanting to see how he wouldn’t, much like how people would want to see how Columbo would outwit the criminal in the TV series of the same era. Even Yamada says some of these films were sometimes a bit hard to get out by the end, but I think the quality of these films are generally high, and often do diverge from the stereotypical plot of the films as generally described in English.

With Kiyoshi Atsumi aging and his pursuit of love becomes less realistic the series enters what Yoshimura calls the “Rebirth” phase. Yoshimura dates this to the 38th film that co-stars Toshiro Mifune. The films become ensemble pieces, with Tora at the center of any one group, as opposed to the triangle relationships of the earlier ones, with Tora-san, the madonna, and the madonna’s eventual partner. They also become slowly focused on Mitsuo, Tora-san’s nephew, and his relationship with Izumi, played by Kumiko Goto, with Tora taking on a role of mentor to MItsuo.

Personally, I like this I think the high period can be extended to 24 and 25. 24, which introduces us to the American Tora-san Michael Jordan (yes, that is his name) and 25, which is the third time Tora and Lily meet and is generally seen to be the best film of the series. And I do not think people watch 25 with the sense of wanting Tora to leave Lily, quite the reverse. I think many films in the 30s are great, as well, but sometimes there is the sense that there is the Tora-san formula is there and, especially after 25, you realize Tora isn’t going to settle down, so those films are about him “searching.” 25 comes out in 1980, along with Yamada’s second and last collaboration with Ken Takakura, A Distant Cry of Spring, which is really more of a 70s-era Yamada film. As Tora-san and Yamada adjust to the go-go 80s, the films change as well.

What kind of film will Tora-san 50? We have some hints, but no one in the general public knows how much Tora-san will be involved in the 50th film to be released at the end of the year, but the focus of the film will continue to be, as they were in the rebirth-era, the relationship between a now widowed Mitsuo and a married Izumi, who lives in Europe.

The orginal films themselves, shot regularly over 25 years, may have centered on the plot device of Tora-san’s doomed relationships, but they do show the changes to his family in Shibamata, as the film themselves begin with the marriage of Tora-san’s sister Sakura to Hiroshi and the birth of their child Mitsuo. Yamada himself compared it to Francois Truffaut’s films about Antoine Doinel. More recently, Richard Linklater did one film, Boyhood, over a period of time, which was filmed over a period of 12 years. But nothing is quite like the steady production of the Tora-san films over a quarter of a century. There is even a scene in an early Tora-san film where he is doing his sales rap near a shrine. The camera slowly moves back to show he is being recorded by some college students. I don’t think anyone expected the films to go on for so long, but Yamada always seemed to know his films were recording the lives of the not rich and famous at a certain time and place.

Going back to what Ebert and many other (who usually haven’t actually seen many Tora-san films) is that they are all the same and people go for the familiarly. One way to look at that is that it is true, but perhaps not quite in the way Ebert and others think. Shouldn’t we be able go to see films in a theater to collectively see our lives on the screen?

Anyways, on to the films. My goal is to watch about one a week. I have a schedule that I may follow, but we’ll see where that goes. Much like the Tora-san films themselves, each post will be similar but different, depending on my relationship and interest with the individual film. I have seen some several times and for those I really like I have gone to see the actual filming locations. For other films, I have seen maybe once or twice, but only have a vague memory of them so watching them may be like watching them for the first time. By the end of the year, though, I personally hope to have a bit deeper understanding of the films and for anyone who joins me, I hope you do as well.