It’s Tough Being a Man: The Complete Tora-san

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents It’s Tough Being a Man: The Complete Tora-san.

criterion logoFor more than twenty-five years, writer-director Yoji Yamada and iconic actor Kiyoshi Atsumi entertained Japanese audiences with the exploits of Torajiro Kuruma, better known as Tora-san, a boorish but kind-hearted street peddler unlucky in love.  In each of the forty-eight feature films released between 1969 and 1995, Japan’s loveable loser returned home to Shibamata to upset the lives of his aunt, uncle, and half-sister and ultimately find himself heartbroken over yet another failed infatuation.  This gently sentimental comic series, known domestically as It’s Tough Being a Man, was an iconic part of Japanese culture that combined a nostalgic vision of post-war community with an unusually unreserved protagonist and traced the fortunes of a country through four decades.  This deluxe set features all forty-eight Tora-san films, presenting many of the beloved classics for North American home-viewing for the first time.

Disc Features:

  • New digital restorations of all 48 films, with uncompressed monaural and stereo soundtracks on the Blu-rays
  • Audio commentary by Japanese film scholar Stuart Galbraith IV for the first Tora-san film, It’s Tough Being a Man
  • Atsumi Kiyoshi no Tora-san kinzoku 25 nen, a 1995 documentary on Kiyoshi Atsumi, along with a new interview with director Yoji Yamada and actress Chieko Baisho
  • Tora-san’s Japan, an interactive map tracing Tora-san’s travels across Japan throughout the films
  • Tora-san’s Shibamata, a guided tour of Shibamata with journalist Jake Adelstein
  • Orangina commercials starring Richard Gere as Tora-san, with behind the scenes footage
  • Trailers
  • PLUS: A book featuring essays by Japanese film scholars Stuart Galbraith IV, Kevin Thomas, Alexander Jacoby, Michael Jeck, Donald Richie, Dave Kehr and a message from director Yoji Yamada

The announcement and release of the Criterion Collection’s Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman box set was stunning (and not merely for its gorgeous packaging that resists shelving next to your other Criterion titles).  The set brought together all 25 feature films in the Zatoichi series (on DVD and Blu-ray!), consolidating the film franchise into one spine numbered package and even filling gaps between the Home Vision Entertainment and AnimEigo releases of the individual Zatoichi films.  At first blush, it seemed like an ostentatious one-off undertaking that would remain unrivaled and uncontested within the Collection’s hard media library.  After all, it’s not like there is an abundance of 25 film franchises starring the same lead actor that are out there waiting for a wacky “C.”  There is, however, another beloved Japanese film franchise waiting for a Criterion treatment, one that holds the record for the longest film franchise starring the same lead actor, and that is the 48 feature films of the Tora-san series.  Now we should acknowledge at the outset that the first 4 films of the Tora-san series have been collected and released by AnimEigo in collaboration with Japanese film scholar Stuart Galbraith IV, but, while the set is labelled as Vol. 1, no further volumes have been released in the 5 years since that initial collection.  With low expectations for AnimEigo releasing Vols. 2-12, we are left hoping that the Criterion Collection could obtain the rights to this wonderful franchise and build upon their Zatoichi experience with a massive Tora-san box set that includes all 48 of its feature films released between 1969 and 1995.

We won’t try and discuss in this post the 48 Tora-san films that would make up this set nor will we follow up this entry with 48 sequential posts addressing each of those films, but we will periodically come back to this proposed collection to discuss a specific title and, who knows, maybe one day we will even exhaust all of the films in the series.  Along the way, we’ll try and touch upon some interesting points specific to each film, but for now we’ll talk generally about what makes these highly consistent (some say, formulaic) films so endearing and enduring.  Each Tora-san film follows roughly the same premise.  Tora-san, a traveling street peddler, returns to the Shibamata neighbourhood of Tokyo to visit his half-sister Sakura (Chieko Baisho) and his aunt and uncle, Tsune (Chieko Misaki) and Tatsuzo (Shin Morikawa (Tora-san #1-8), Tatsuo Matsumura (Tora-san #9-13), and Masami Shimojo (Tora-san #14-48)), at their traditional Dango shop (a kind of small cafe serving sweets).  While generally arriving with good intentions, Tora-san’s airs of worldliness and authority are quickly dispelled by his buffoonish actions and unrefined demeanour, inspiring frustration and anger in the community and leading to his departure.  Back on the road (or not sometimes), Tora-san meets a young woman he becomes infatuated with, a figure in the series referred to as a “Madonna” and played by a young ingénue popular at the time.  Tora-san’s adoration is never romantically reciprocated however, and his actions usually lead to the Madonna coupling with an old flame or a new love.  Each film normally ends with a coda of Tora-san back on the road, holding court with fellow travelers by his tall tales and sales pitches, healing his broken heart in the process.

The Tora-san films are frequently described as anachronistic.  The tight knit suburban neighbourhood represented in the series had essentially vanished from Japan following the war and redevelopment, assuming they had ever existed at all, but the nostalgia of these films carries farther than the reclamation of a lost way of life.  As Alexander Jacoby observes, the Tora-san films can be read as Shochiku’s nod to its own earlier shomin-geki films, those bittersweet stories of the lower-middle classes popular 30 years earlier and for which Yasujiro Ozu is best remembered.  The appearance of Ozu-regular Chishu Ryu in the series as the local priest lends credit to this reading.  Further, with 42 films over 25 years, the series itself feeds its own nostalgic legacy, with Tora-san visiting the Japanese public once or twice a year, much like he visits Shibamata and his relatives periodically.  The Tora-san films became their own tradition, something familiar and reliable in their own right, something an entire generation grew up with as a fixture in their lives.

Shibamata Station StatueUltimately, the lion’s share of credit for the success of the series must rest with its lead actor, Kiyoshi Atsumi, who played Tora-san with an affable clumsiness that inspired in audiences sympathy and devotion for this lovable loser unlucky in love.  Tora-san first appeared as a television character on the program Gukei-Kenmai (or Goofy Brother and Wise Sister), later renamed as Otoko wa tsurai yo (or It’s Tough Being a Man), with Atsumi playing the same character and a different cast surrounding him than those present in the film series.  When Tora-san was killed by a snakebite in the final episode, the Japanese public erupted in displeasure and Yamada revived the character in a feature film as an apology to the TV audience.  The first film, It’s Tough Being a Man, was an initial success and inspired ever more popular sequels.  Stuart Galbraith IV reports in his commentary on the first film that the Tora-san audience had tripled by the 8th film, cementing it as a cornerstone to the studio and seeing Shochiku through some lean years that followed.  The series ended with Atsumi’s death in 1996 from lung cancer, appearing notably ill in the final film.  Atsumi led a fascinating life (one we hope to discuss further in future posts), but it’s worth noting in first instance here that he highly valued the gift he obtained in the role of Tora-san, going so far as to avoid publicly sharing his private life with his wife and two children out of concern of dispelling the magic that surrounded his bachelor character.  Atsumi’s character left an indelible mark on his country and travelers visiting the Shibamata train station are greeted immediately outside by a bronze statue of the character.

Tora-san is a captivating figure, something of an anachronism in his own right.  A tekiya, a street merchant yakuza selling questionable products or services, Tora-san is immediately identifiable as slightly old-fashioned, abiding by his professional code officiously, frequently slipping into slang and unsophisticated humour, and distinguished by his worn suitcase, his beige-checked suit, his eel-skin zori sandals, and his haramaki (or belly warmer).  In a modernizing Japan, Tora-san is a man increasingly out of time, adding to his position as a kind of misfit and liminal figure who looks into the idealized version of Shibamata from the outside much as the audience does.  And, like the audience, Tora-san longs for the same kind of acceptance and community, positioning him frequently as an advocate for seemingly conservative values like tradition, family, and goodwill.  As Dave Kehr notes, Tora-san is “the antithesis of the typical Japanese ‘salaryman'” and “upholds tradition by living outside it, who celebrates home by remaining homeless.”  The character is often compared to Chaplin’s tramp, Tati’s M. Hulot, and Mickey Rooney’s Andy Hardy, but we’re most partial to his kinship with Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden and John Candy’s Uncle Buck – loutish, working class men with soft-hearts and staunch characters.  The difference here is that Tora-san’s demonstrative expressiveness has added significance in the context of a restrained and mannered Japan.  The loudest proponent in the film series for tradition and nostalgia is its least traditional, most brashly outspoken figure and part of his appeal rests in the Japanese audience’s opportunity to live vicariously through his effusively honest emotions.

Part of the appeal in the series’ longevity comes in its breadth in time and space.  Nearly all of Japan’s prefectures are visited by Tora-san over the course of the series and audiences were offered a biannual vacation by proxy through the films.  The series also offers an overview of Japan’s fortunes during its run – as Japan prospers and struggles, so do the films characters.  Boom times, recessions, even the Kobe earthquake, are all reflected in the series.  Even more special is the ability to watch these characters (and performers) grow and age through the series.  It’s astonishing that nearly all the film’s principle characters are played by the same actors throughout, including Sakura’s son who occupies the role from infancy to adulthood.  As Stuart Galbraith IV observes, there is no comparable work outside of perhaps Paul Almond and Michael Apted’s documentary Up Series.

Bryan Lee O'Malley Scott Pilgrim ChartA Criterion edition of the Tora-san series would be a massive package, but well worth it.  While often cited as too Japanese in its humour and manners for western audiences, there is a universality in the Tora-san character that is identifiable to anyone.  Tora-san embodies our desires for acceptance and our fears of inadequacy and rejection.  He is sympathetic in his genuine efforts and his dismal failures.  And everyone understands the burden of an idiot relative.  By these easily accessible elements, the cultural nuances of Tora-san becomes appreciated much as they do in Ozu’s films, becoming points of access rather than resistance.  The Tora-san films quickly become a charming addiction and seeing one demands seeing more.  Thinking about a cover treatment, we’d love to see Bryan Lee O’Malley take on this gargantuan task.  O’Malley’s manga style would nicely connect to back to these very Japanese films and preserve the sense of whimsy, comedy, and sentimentality that root the series.  O’Malley is also comfortable with big casts and a Tora-san package could use a messy flow chart like this one for his Scott Pilgrim series.  We can foresee all sorts of fascinating ideas O’Malley might incorporate into a booklet – recurring badges for each of the series’ Madonnas, a flip book in the corner of the booklet that ages Sakura’s son from baby to young man, faux postcards from Tora-san’s travels.  This expansive set would be great fun for the Criterion Collection and its fans if embraced fully.  It wouldn’t be cheap, but it would definitely be worthwhile.

Credits:  Once again, Animeigo’s collector’s set containing the first four films is an excellent introduction to the series and we’ve ported over Stuart Galbraith IV’s commentary, the interactive map feature, and the various essays contained in the booklet.  We’ve also added regular Criterion contributor Dave Kehr as an essayist given his positive review for the AnimEigo set.  We’ve included a 1995 documentary on Kiyoshi Atsumi, although we haven’t seen it and can’t even find a translation for the title!  We’ve also added new interviews with Yoji Yamada, who is still kicking at 83, and Chieko Baisho, who still acts and continues to collaborate with Yamada.  Jake Adelstein’s tour of Shibamata, including the Tora-San Museum dedicated to the beloved film series, is inspired by his article with Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky for Japan Subculture Research Center.  The Orangina commercials are simply for a laugh, plus we love hearing that theme song as much as possible.

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5 thoughts on “It’s Tough Being a Man: The Complete Tora-san

  1. Art Garcia-Cuellar April 7, 2016 / 8:28 pm

    I have seen 38 of the 48 films through Scarecrow video in Seattle WA. I am in the love with the Tora-san series and I would love to see Criterion pick up the entire collection.

    • spinenumbered April 7, 2016 / 9:00 pm

      Wow! You’re way farther ahead than I am! I’m glad you agree with my love of Tora-san. That would be one mighty set if it ever got released. Maybe Blu-ray only would be the way to go with that one.

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