Thursday, June 07, 2007


OTOKO WA TSURAI YO

I was traveling home on the evening train one rainy evening not long ago, staring out the window at the various city-country scenes streaming by, and out of nowhere I suddenly had the urge to see a Tora-san movie, of all things.

It surprised me that the scenes I was seeing, of old Japan even yet morphing into new Japan, both in and at the edges of the city and even in the villages, somehow evoked in me that nostalgia that Otoko wa Tsurai yo handles so well. I've become more Japanese than I thought.

Back when I first came to Japan in the early seventies and was living in the old house in Mita in Tokyo, Japan was changing fast, but it was still the old country: everyone stared at the few foreigners, the buses and trains were smaller, the streets narrower, the many districts (Shinjuku, Roppongi, Shibuya, Harajuku, Kanda, Ochanomizu etc.,) still had the distinct flavors of the villages that had grown together into what was now Tokyo.

The countryside was little changed from before the war, and the elders of that time still had the old ways about them. Japan was the country it had always been, pretty much, but it was palpably slipping away...

In my many travels around city and country in those days, both for work and for pleasure, I often saw giant billboards for a movie that kept seeming to repeat itself, always called Otoko wa Tsurai yo (It's Tough Being a Man), with a small subtitle. The main feature of the billboards (all hand-painted in those days) was the huge grinning face of the main character Tora-san, a yakuza-poi (not yakuza, but yakuza-ish) guy with a wart on his eyebrow and always the same ugly suitcoat and cheap porkpie hat, vulgarly exposed haramaki and an omamori on a long cord around his neck— all very coarse and unappealing in Japan, I would have thought.

But twice a year like clockwork there would be new giant billboards over the big movie houses for the new-but-same Tora-san movies that kept coming out (48 movies in 25 years!) and were clearly very popular with the Japanese public, a fact I could not understand: what could be so appealing about this series that looked like a repetitively retro-tacky, low-ranking yakuza-ish romantic comedy?

It was some years later, on my return to Japan, that I finally watched my first Tora-san movie on tv, and I was hooked. I understood now why the series was so appealing to the Japanese of those and earlier times: the movies cared about the old Japan and the loss of its values, the fading of its traditional principles, its village virtues, its modesty, its integrity, its traditional beauty with a touch of lost romance, all as experienced (or perhaps invaded) by the well-intentioned, bumbling Tora-san, who vagabonds through a fading world. Nowadays the little country villages that still survive are becoming museums of that lost reality.

In each movie Tora-san, a wandering street merchant, visits a beautiful place in Japan (and where the usual plot key occurs), where at a festival or some other busy place he sets up (or plans to set up; sometimes he never quite makes it) a stall and begins hawking cheap junk to passersby; that's how he makes his living, even though his family has a small shop in Tokyo.

Bumbling, good-hearted Tora-san: genuine, friendly, yearning for home but longing for the open road, vagabond blessed and plagued alike by fate and family, lured by his yearning for independence, the freedom to visit Japan's traditionally beautiful places away from his family's humble sweet shop/home in Shitamachi, Tokyo's old 'wrong side of the tracks,' to which he returns in each movie, until for whatever reason he can't stand it again and hits the road once more...

So if you're in one of those wistful moods on a perfect rainy evening and you want to travel to some interesting places in Japan and see a funny but touching movie that has its own special place in cinema history, rent a Tora-san film (if you can find one with English subtitles) and make some popcorn...

***

Here's a typical goofy lead-in to one of the movies, which often start with Tora-san walking along the banks of the Sumida River in Tokyo, probably on one of his visits home. There are other good clips from the series as well...

There's also a Tora-san Museum...

Here's a good review of at least one Tora-san movie with English subtitles (probably because Mifune Toshiro is in it).

Here's the IMDB Tora-san site (with excellent summary of the series at bottom of this page)

And of course, the Wikipedia Tora-san page...

6 comments:

steve said...

Yes, the Tora-san movies depict the good 'ole days that are now beyond our reach except in wistful memory (of the furusato that we non-Japanese as well as Japanese never really had). Even before I could understand the Japanese and before having any desire to see a complete Tora-san movie, the mere idea of Tora-san planted a seed in my heart.

The street setting in Shibamata, Tokyo, used for his home remains pretty much as it was in the movies. When I visited, about 10 years ago, there was a Tora-san lookalike greeting people at the station and making himself very available for group photos. The nearby Tora-san Memorial Museum is excellent and fun.

I heard a rumor that the writer of the Tora-san series used to hole up in an old-style inn in Kagurazaka and write the whole screenplay in just a few weeks.

Tora-san was a great movie series, comfortable and heartwarming. Thanks for the post to bring back to mind pleasant memories.

Trace said...

I love the music. This looks like a very pleasant series...Wish I could learn the language.

Bob Brady said...

I'm going to try and rent the first movie in the series. See if I can relate it here, in some way...

joared said...

I found the video quite humorous via the action though I don't understand Japanese.

A classmate in my writing class who has learned the language, studies and writes much about Japanese animation film, delves into other forms of storytelling, writing Haiku Poetry. Most recently he shared a story from "Japanese Tales," followed by his "tanka" commentary on the story.

Trace said...

I hope you can Robert. I never tire of visiting here.

Martin J Frid said...

Wow, thanks for posting this video clip. Love the clarinet melody and the singing...

I saw my first Tora-san movie on the night bus from Tokyo to Kochi, Shikoku island... Even though the language is a barrier, most of the scenes are heart-warming and easy to understand.