A Year of Tora-san 1: The Origins

I finally found the time to watch the first Otoko wa Tsurai Yo. I can’t even say it is one of my favorites, but even so I have already seen it many times. Just last summer, I went to Nara, so of course I wanted to see the sites that Tora saw there. So to prepare for that trip I watched the film again last summer. But I also love seeing films in theaters and the first Otoko wa Tsurai Yo has been shown in theaters around Tokyo several times since I first watched the whole series about 4 or 5 years ago.

Audiences at the time who saw it on its first run in theaters already knew Tora-san, as well. Kiyoshi Atsumi had already played a similar character type in several films up to this point and then had played Tora-san in a TV series, in which ended with his untimely death. Fans clamored to bring him back and although the Tora-san of the TV series is a bit more of a hoodlum than he is in the films, he was essentially resurrected on the big screen.

The first film, of course, follows the famed Tora-san plot pretty closely. Although it isn’t my intention to run through the plot of each film, it seems appropriate to do so for the first one.

The film starts with a very Yoji Yamada-esque black and white montage of working class Shibamata while Tora explains in a voice over why he has not returned home for 20 years — he ran away from an abusive father — and why he is finally returning — he found out his father, mother (who we will find out is not his birth mother in the next film) and older brother have all passed away. He crosses the Edogawa River from Chiba to Katsushika ward, engaging in some hijinks while walking through the riverside park as the opening credits roll. In the future he will make his entrance into Shibamata to visit his family by trying, and failing, to be as inconspicuous as possible, but this is first time back in 20 years, so he makes a big splash. He crashes Shibamata’s famous temple Tashakuten’s Koshin Festival by grabbing a matoi mochi and flinging it up like a pro as he enters the temple grounds. We see Gen (Gajiro Sato) in the background. Yoshino Tani appears with her one line of the movie, a constant throughout the series. This first time it is to comment on who exactly Tora is and where he might be from. The moment Tora notices he rushes to introduce himself to Gozensama, the head of the temple,played by Ozu regular Chishu Ryu, a living, physical connection between the two very different directors and the two eras of the film studio, Shochiku, where the two masters found a home.

His Aunt Tsune (Chieko Misaki) soon recognizes him and brings him “home” to the family house and shop, which sells dango, a traditional Japanese sweet. While reintroducing himself to his aunt and Uncle Tatsuzo (played in the first eight films by Shin Morikawa) his sister Sakura (Chieko Baisho) comes home. Though at first she doesn’t recognize the low level grey market peddler her brother has become, memories and tears flow easily once the connection is remembered.

He soon creates trouble in the family in by destroying Sakura’s chances of being married to an executive in the firm she works at by being the low class street ruffian he is at a very hoity toity, upper class o-miai (where couples and families meet for the first time to see if they are compatable for marriage — in other words, not a marriage where two people marry because they are in love) at a Western-style lunch, at the ultra modern Hotel New Otani no less.

The next day, Tora, not knowing anything is amiss — or perhaps knowing everything is amiss — introduces himself to a local yakuza organization (Tora’s job as a travelling salesman is just outside the law) and while wandering around town runs into his protege Noboru (Taisaku Akino) failing to sell some used magazines on the street. Tora takes over and shows his true talent in language through his sales patter. Tora arrives home that evening with Noburo. Both are a bit tipsy. However, a big fight between Tora and his family occurs after Tora insults everyone, including slapping his sister, while they argue over his behavior at the lunch. The fight also brings back memories of Tora’s relationship with his father. Somehow, things calm down and Sakura and Tora can laugh it all off. (While Sakura was embarrassed did she really want to marry out of Shibamata?)

In the morning, however, it is Tora who is now shamed by his actions and leaves with only a written note informing everyone of his plans. While crossing back across the Edogawa as Sakura and Noboru (who ended up also spending the night at Tora’s aunt and uncle’s) try to stop him by finding him crossing the Edogawa again but he refuses to even look back. He ends up in Nara, where he runs into Gozensama and his sophisticated daughter. He comes back to Shibamata in love with Fuyuko, all memories of past shames forgotten.

However, while trying to court Fuyuko he somehow becomes involved with Hiroshi Suwa (Gin Maeda)’s own attempts to express his love to Tora’s sister, Sakura. Hiroshi is an important member of the staff of the print shop behind the Kuruma’s house and shop, and Tora already had run ins with the workers there who he felt were too close to Sakura. But Tora eventually gets Hiroshi and Sakura together by messing things up so badly that everyone is forced to express their true feelings in spite of themselves.

There is a small wedding reception held at a local restaurant, which not only brings together Hiroshi and Sakura, but also Hiroshi and his long estranged parents. Hiroshi had lied about his background so no one even knew they were alive and everyone was especially surprised to find out Hiroshi’s father was a university professor. Although suspicions were raised that Hiroshi’s parents were ashamed at their son, they eventually reveal they have come to apologize to their son in dramatic fashion in front of the entire Shibamata community.

While Hiroshi and Sakura are happily married and Hiroshi is also reunited with his parents, Tora eventually discovers that even after a trip to the track and a working class bar with his love Fuyuko is not what he thinks it is, and she is to be wed to someone else. Depressed, he decides this is the time to leave again. After leaving Sakura behind as she calls upon him to stay, he also leaves Noburo behind at Ueno Station, demanding (for the first but not last time) that Noburo not follow Tora nor his career path. In the end, however, they run into each other on the road and the movie ends as they joke and dance by a small lake.

This is the ur-Tora-san plot, the one people like Roger Ebert felt was repetitive and others have seen has the potential for far more stories that were waiting to be told. There are also a few specific points I wished to point out before moving on to Tora-san 2.

First is the wedding scene. Takashi Shimura, the great star of the post war era of film, who stared in everything Kurosawa classics to the first Godzilla film, is pitch perfect as the humbled and shamed professor who has come to the wedding in an attempt to reconcile with his son who had rejected his father’s life and status to become a working class printer in Tokyo.  

Sentimental scenes such as this are a key point of any Tora-san film. Acting due to strong emotions and connections towards family, friends, community, as well as one’s own heart rather than the cold emotional logic of a modern society focused on material wealth, is a key aspect of Yamada’s films that also flows through the whole Tora-san series.

Through this year, I hope to explore what exactly sentimentality in film and theater means. Many see sentimentality in film and storytelling as a negative and it can be argued that is one reason Yamada’s films have never made it out of Japan, as sentimentality is always a key aspect in Yamada’s films. As it is used today in English the word itself has a negative connotation. Yet it is this appeal to emotion that draws me to these films, in the end. They remind me that there are important aspects to life that can be forgotten in the day to day grind of daily life. I often feel the urge to call or even visit my own home in the US as much as I feel I want to travel around Japan after watching a particular Tora-san film. Tora-san specifically and Yamada’s films generally concern universal themes that are rooted in the specific context and circumstances of postwar Japan, which is why I think the films themselves deserve a wider audience globally.

There is another scene during the wedding of Hiroshi and Sakura that also reflects why the films were so successful, which is the connection between Kiyoshi Atsumi and Chieko Baisho. They had acted together in films before, with Atsumi playing characters similar to who he plays here, while Baisho often is playing a much more freewheeling character, a character type that, for whatever reason, Yamada generally doesn’t cast her to play.

(As an aside, Atsumi’s career can, on a certain level, be seen as a great tragedy because he is eventually unable to break free from the Tora-san character, perhaps somewhat like his contemporary Peter Falk and his alter ego Columbo. Baisho, on the other hand, was always able to keep an identity separate from the Tora-san films and play characters throughout the run that were much more harder edged than Sakura’s is.)

In any case, the bond and familial chemistry between the two personally is clearly seen during the wedding photo scene.

Earlier in the film, Tora is with Gozen-sama and his daughter in Nara, taking their photo. Gozen-sama, who is shown in a suit is trying to smile in the photo, so he says butter, when he means cheese. Hilarity ensues at his daughter points out Gozen-sama has mixed up cheese and butter, which Tora doesn’t seem to quite get but he does know people will think it is funny.

So while sitting for the commemorative wedding photo, Tora (or, is it just Atsumi being Atsumi?) yells better and immediately Baisho laughs a genuine laugh, a bit out of context for the scene. The scene itself is a bit downbeat, of course, as no one knew why Hiroshi’s parents have shown up and what they plan would do, though suspicions were running high that they were their to ruin the wedding. Generally, in any case, a formal photo such as this people rarely smile and the photographer was not going to try to get anyone to smile. Yet Yamada cuts to the next scene just as you notice Baisho break character and laugh. The Tora-Sakura brother-sister relationship is the glue of the series, and it is difficult to imagine it lasting so long if Baisho and Atsumi themselves didn’t genuinely enjoy each other’s company.

One other scene deserves special attention as we head towards the release of Tora-san 50 at the end of the year.

In the second to last scene Gozen-sama is holding Hiroshi and Sakura’s newborn baby named Mitsuo. Gozen-sama is asked who Mitsuo looks like and he finally says he looks like Tora-san!

Tora (spoiler alert!) never actually gets married (though we do not know what we will learn in Tora-san 50) and although the character changes a bit, especially as Atsumi loses a step or jump as he ages, those changes are never too dramatic. The actor playing Tora’s uncle changes twice, and the character then changes a bit as the actor plays the character a bit differently, but the essential relationship between Tora and his uncle and aunt never really change. The owner of the printing shop next door is always worried about his business while always a bit too quick to make fun of Tora-san, which more often than not ends up in a fight.

What does change, however, is the lives of the Suwa’s. Mitsuo will grow up over the course of the films, the death of both of Hiroshi’s parents are important parts of the series and the Suwa’s themselves will move from their small apartment to a house they own themselves. Yamada himself mentioned this in his introduction to why he was making Tora-san 50, which will focus on the Suwa’s, as not only did the films showcase their changing lives but also because all three actors who played those roles are alive and still acting.

So while there is great pleasure, and more, from watching the films due to both the Tora-san character and the genius of Atsumi, who is playing him, watching the Tora-san films through the lens of the Suwa’s changing lives can also be entertaining, enlightening and an excellent way way to prepare for Tora-san 50 at the end of the year.

Now, however, the foundation for the series has been set. The next two films are the only two that were not directed by Yamada, though they were filmed by him. They may give us some glimpses into how the series would have gone if they didn’t have the unified vision of Yamada directing them all.

I am already almost a month behind schedule, as well, and if I keep writing essays of such length I might never finish the series! So my plan is to pick up the pace a bit and maybe write a bit less. See you next time, in any case.