Monday, December 07, 2009

It's Tough Being A Man-Animeigo's Tora-san DVD Set

While there have been some long-lived film franchises in the West (most notably James Bond, Friday the 13th, and various other horror films), it's hard to believe that a series could make it to 48 films-all starring the same actor in the lead role. Animeigo's new four film "Tora-san" DVD boxed set is the first time that this iconic film series has been presented on home video for Western audiences. Actor Atsumi Kiyoshi made the character of Kuruma Torajio his own, and came to identify with the part so much that he turned down parts in other films that he thought might cause backlash against Tora-san. The series began in 1969 and only ended in 1996 with Atsumi's death. In between, Japanese audiences looking to capture the feeling of nostalgia these films were infused with filled theaters twice a year (or once, during the later years of the series) and helped keep Shochiku studios afloat during some tough times in the Japanese film industry.

The first film in the set is "Our Lovable Tramp". The Japanese title for this 1969 release, Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo ('It's Tough Being A Man') became the umbrella title for the entire series. As with most initial films of a series, this one is notable for establishing the main characters, their backstory, and the locale. Here Tora-san, a rough-around-the-edges peddler who had left home at an early age after a fight with his father, decides to return to Shibamata in Tokyo after 20 years. His parents and older brother have all passed away, but his sister Sakura is still living there with 'Uncle' and 'Auntie'. Tora-san attempts to reestablish himself with them, but his loutish behavior ruins Sakura's miai (a meeting that introduces the proposed partners in an arranged marriage). Also introduced is the group of workers in the factory next door that play a big part in the series-one of them, Hiroshi, is taken to task by Tora-san for showing too much interest in his sister. Tora's now-and-future flunkies (it's hard to imagine someone less capable than Tora, but there you go), Noboru and Gen, are introduced. And of course, it wouldn't be a Tora-san film if Tora didn't fall hard for a woman he can't have-in this case, Fuyuko, the daughter of the local temple's chief priest, Gozen-sama (a wonderful performance by Ryu Chishu). The humor's not as pronounced in the first film as it would become in later entries, and it plays largely like a drama. It does have its moments, though, especially during the miai's dinner and with Tora-san chasing after Fuyuko with an inflatable Nara souvenir deer.

Also released in 1969 was "Tora-san's Cherished Mother" (Zoku Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo). As explained in the first film, Tora's birth mother was a geisha and Tora himself was a 'mistake' made by his father. Tora learns that she has retired from being a geisha and is running a hotel in Kyoto. With visions of the perfect reunion playing in his head, he sets out for Kyoto to find her. He's aided by Natsuko, the daughter of his old schoolteacher, Sanpo. The elegant older woman Tora meets outside the hotel proves to be everything he had anticipated-but he's in for a big surprise. The humor in the second film is much more obvious with Tora faking injuries to win Natsuko's sympathy, having drinking bouts with Sanpo, finding himself in a kitchy "Love Hotel" with a nervous Fuyuko, and having to deal with a mother that turned out to be not what he had envisioned.

1970 saw the debut of the third film, "Tora-san: His Tender Love" (Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo: Futen No Tora). Once again, Tora leaves home when the attempts of his family to arrange a marriage for him result in Tora reuniting the woman with her real love. Tora takes up a position working at a hot springs resort to get closer to its owner, Oshizu. By now, you KNOW this relationship is not going to end well for Tora, but getting to that point is half the fun. Amazing coincidences abound-Tora's Auntie and Uncle just happen to take a vacation at the same resort that Tora's working at. The biker that Tora faces off with on a bridge turns out to be Oshizu's brother. Tora's character continues to become softer around the edges, a bit more sentimental, and a little less combative.

Rounding out the set is 1970's "Tora-san's Grand Scheme" (Shin Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo). Tora has hit it big at the racetrack and wants to use his winnings to send his Auntie and Uncle on their dream vacation to Hawaii. Of course, this doesn't come off as planned, and circumstances dictate that Tora and his family are unable to turn over a captured burglar to the police without losing face because of it. Tora again comes off looking like an idiot, and insult is added to injury when his family rents out his room to a schoolteacher after he once again takes to the road. Tora is incensed until he falls in love with the sexy young teacher, becoming smote to the point of taking part in the activities of her kindergarten-aged class. Could this be the one? Well, probably not, but Tora continues to become more of a nice guy with every passing movie-definitely not the same guy that slapped his sister across the face in part one.

It was a good decision on Animeigo's part to release the first four films together. This allows the real strengths and appeal of the Tora-san series to shine through, something that likely would not have been the case if only the first one had been released. The Tora-san series gives a real sense of family-the actors playing the different parts tended to stay with the roles and appear throughout the series, led by Atsumi's record-breaking feat of starring in all 48 films. In many ways, it's much like a TV series-the characters are the main attraction, and the plots become somewhat incidental to watching them. The Tora-san films are tough to classify-they're not straightforward dramas, but they're not really comedies. They have elements of romances, but don't quite fit that genre either. They don't have much in the way of action, and aside from the odd kaiju in a dream sequence, not much in the way of special effects either. What is it that gave them the massive appeal they have for Japanese audiences?

Over the course of the 27 years of the series, we watch the different members get married, have children, change jobs, go through personal problems, all the while against the shifting backdrop of four different decades of Tokyo-in one case (Sakura's son), the same actor plays the part from infancy to adulthood, lending it an air of watching a real family's life play out. In a country featuring festivals (most notably the Obon festivals in July and August) where everyone is encouraged to return to their hometowns and an entire song genre devoted to invoking a feeling of nostalgia (enka), it's easy to see where Tora-san's appeal to a Japanese audience would be. The nostalgic aspect is reinforced by bits and motifs that appear in each film-Tora's opening monologue about his birth and background, the same goofy song the workers next door try to use to impress women, many of Tora's stock phrases (such as his tired refrain, "It's tough being a man"), and the description of Tora's face as being 'like a sandal'. The simpler times where family meant more than possessions and the old ways of Japanese life had not been somewhat cast aside for Western ways were a big attraction for the average Japanese viewer. Interestingly, while many Westerners seem to think that the sentimental Japan of Tora-san's world never really existed, we can vouch that even in a big city like Kyoto, many neighborhoods just like this one are still around (Stuart Galbraith mentions the same thing on his commentary-wonder what part of Kyoto he lives in?). While watching the films, we were struck by the similarities. Perhaps getting a glimpse of Japanese culture in transition will be a major area of interest for many Western audiences checking out the films.

Another aspect of the Tora-san series that Japanese moviegoers enjoyed was living vicariously through Tora. In a society that largely stresses proper, polite, and understated behavior, Tora was the nail that sticks out. While he continuously was hammered back down, he never let it keep him down for long-even using his misfortunes as fodder for funny stories on a train or ship that made him the center of attention. His occupation as an itinerant peddler allowed him to travel all over Japan at his whim, completely free from the day to day routine of the average Japanese. One reviewer has even mentioned that the films function as a sort of travelogue, with Tora turning up virtually everywhere in Japan during the 48 films.

It's interesting watching Atsumi's character subtly transform through the four films. After having been away from family for twenty years, Tora initially fancies himself as a tough, yakuza style guy with a hard attitude. As he begins to integrate more with his real family and build closer relationships, it slowly begins to soften. The Tora of film four is noticeably kinder and less grating than the one seen in the first film-but sadly for him, no more successful with the ladies. Atsumi rarely misses a step as Tora-everything about the character rings true, no matter how absurd or wild his actions might seem. The rest of the cast is equally at home with their characters.

Extras for the four-disc set are of Animeigo's typical high quality, although discs two through four appear a bit short on them (especially when compared to disc one's haul). There's a well written 28 page booklet with essays on the series by many well-known Japanese film scholars such as Michael Jeck, Donald Richie, Stuart Galbraith IV, Kevin Thomas, and others. It also includes a message from the director of all but two of the Tora-san films, Yamada Yoji (who is best known around the Samurai Archives for his recent 'Samurai Trilogy' of films). Disc One includes a commentary on the film and the series as a whole by Stuart Galbraith IV, and he does an outstanding job. Galbraith has a real feel for and understanding of Japanese culture, giving weight to most of his observations. The program notes for disc one are extensive as well, and in them Animeigo does its best to explain some of the comedic wordplay Tora-san routinely engages in. This is probably the one aspect of the films that will be hardest for Western audiences to enjoy, so it might be helpful to check out the program notes first before watching the film. There's an interactive map (which unfortunately is the same for all four discs) showing Tora-san's travels and also a detailed map of his hometown in Shibamata in Tokyo. Rounding things out on disc one are cast and crew bios, trailers, and an image gallery. Discs two through four have program notes (although as previously mentioned these are somewhat abbreviated-I can't believe Animeigo didn't bite at the oppotunity to explain a 'Love Hotel' for Disc Two!), the map, bios, trailers, and image galleries. Animeigo has even beefed up their always outstanding subtitles-disc one has an option for experimental 'basic subtitles' that make for faster reading for those new to foreign films.

In any type of continuing series, the question usually boils down to one thing: will the viewer be looking forward to the next installment? In our case, the answer was a definite YES-we found Tora-san's little corner of Tokyo fascinating, charming, and full of surprises. His friends and family could easily have been the people from our neighborhood in Kyoto. We hope that the series hits it big with Western audiences so that we can continue following the antics of 'Japan's Most Beloved Loser' and his family for, say, 44 more films. Tora-san might be a loser, but the DVD set is a sure winner. You can buy the boxed set directly from Animeigo or at Amazon.


  1. Thanks for a beautifully written review.

    I've only seen one Tora-san movie, one right in the middle somewhere, and I thought it dopey and silly; I'd been told that all the others follow pretty much the same plot arc, so why bother seeing them all?

    But, even having been told that, there's a reason this is a classic and is so beloved. Tora-san therefore remains on my list of things to see.

  2. Thanks!

    I really think the Tora-san series depends on the viewer having seen more than one, and obviously seeing them in order helps as well. Yes, they are corny, silly, and generally follow the same plot-but they have undeniable charm all the same-kind of like watching a film your family and friends put together.

  3. Thanks for the kinds words and thoughtful review, Tatsunoshi. As for me, I'm in Iwakura!