Tora-san in English

by Alexander Jacoby

This year marks the 40th birthday of arguably the most popular character in Japanese cinema — Tora-san. To celebrate the occasion, Shochiku is releasing the complete set of its Tora-san films, remastered and subtitled in English.

Released under the umbrella title of “Otoko wa tsurai yo” (“It’s Tough Being a Man”), these films focused on Torajiro Kuruma (Tora-san), a rough-edged, irresponsible yet sincere, enterprising and basically decent fellow, who works as an itinerant peddler, returning periodically to his hometown, Shibamata in Tokyo’s Katsushika Ward, and to the long-suffering family of which he is the black sheep.

Played with impeccable comic timing and a well-judged blend of tough and tender by Kiyoshi Atsumi, Tora-san brought pleasure to Japanese audiences for over a quarter of a century.

The character was created in 1968 for the original television series “Otoko wa tsurai yo” (two episodes of which are also available on DVD).

Ironically, given his future perennial popularity, he was killed off in the final episode. Shochiku then resurrected him for his first feature-film appearance in 1969.

The series stretched to 48 installments until Atsumi’s death in 1996. All but two of the films were directed by Yoji Yamada, also known for the gentle realism of his family dramas, and for the trilogy of understated period films initiated by “The Twilight Samurai” (“Tasogare Seibei,” 2002).

It is appropriate to view these films in the context of an anniversary, since the Tora-san series was calculatedly nostalgic from the start. Even in the late ’60s, the Japan it described was an anachronism, and the films were basically salutes to the close-knit suburban communities that had disappeared due to war and redevelopment.

Indeed, the Tora-san films may be interpreted as Shochiku’s tribute to its own work in the prewar and early postwar years. The blend of pathos and humor recalled the bittersweet flavor of the shomin-geki, or drama about the lower-middle classes, of which Yasujiro Ozu was the most distinguished exponent. That connection was made explicit by the casting of Chishu Ryu, Ozu’s regular star (most famous to Western viewers as the father in 1953′s “Tokyo Story”) as the priest of Tora-san’s local temple.

All the Tora-san films had broadly the same plot. In each, the hero meets, falls for and loses the girl. Individual entries were distinguished mainly by the casting of the heroines, known collectively as Tora-san’s “Madonnas.” Likewise, each film depicted the hero’s awkward interaction with his family.

But it is too simplistic to say that the series was formulaic, since the formula itself was the pleasure. From Tora-san’s unchanging opening narration and the whimsical theme tune, to the film-parody pre-credit dream sequences with which later episodes began, the viewer had the sense of returning to a familiar world, and reacquainting himself with characters that he had come to know intimately over the years. The regular twice-yearly installments, released to coincide with Bon summer holidays and New Year festivities, began to feel like visits from beloved relatives.

Unlike Ozu, Yamada sometimes let tenderness slip into sentimentality. Still, though the Tora-san films were not demanding, they were always engaging and sometimes delightful. If Tora-san, a perennial bachelor and wanderer, was himself an outsider, he was loved not only by his devoted sister but by millions of viewers across Japan. That the films are less well-known abroad suggests that their wistful sentimentality travels less well than their itinerant hero. But these subtitled DVD releases may allow foreign viewers, too, to feel part of the family.

The complete “Otoko wa Tsurai yo” box set is now available. The first 40 episodes can also be purchased individually; the remainder will be released Nov. 27.