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November 23, 2009

"Tora-San" Collector's Set Volume 1

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Tora-San, Our Lovable Tramp/Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo
Yoji Yamada - 1969

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Tora-San's Cherished Mother/Zoku Otoku Wa Tsurai Yo
Yoji Yamada - 1969

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Tora-San, His Tender Love/Otoku Wa Tsurai Yo: Futen No Tora
Azuma Morisaki - 1970

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Tora-San's Grand Scheme/Shin Otoku Wa Tsurai Yo
Shunichi Kobayashi - 1970
all AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

In Stuart Galbraith's commentary that goes with the first "Tora-San" movie, he discusses Yoji Yamada's time as an Assistant Director. On the surface, it appeared that he wasn't working as hard as other A.D.s. Because of his ability to organize himself and others, Yamada was able to accomplish what he had to with seemingly less effort. This ability to be inconspicuous seems to have been a key to Yamada's career. Unlike his peers at Shochiku, such as Masahiro Shinoda and Nagisa Oshima, Yamada was primarily working on the "Tora-San" films, while Shinoda made the highly stylized Double Suicide and Boy had helped win Oshima international attention. Yamada's strategy seems to have been to establish himself as commercially viable filmmaker so that studio support of his more personal projects would be less of a gamble. Yamada was for many western viewers, definitely myself, an unknown director prior to the release of Twilight Samurai, released when Yamada was seventy-one years old. It is with the "Tora-San" films that one can identify Yamada honing his craft.

The series is about an itinerant salesman who usually sells cheap merchandise on the street. Returning to his old neighborhood near the Edo River in Tokyo, Tora temporarily lives with his beleaguered aunt and uncle who run a sweets shop, best described as a kind of fast food restaurant that specializes in dumplings. Tora's much younger sister, Sakura, helps out at the restaurant. As the formula usually goes, Tora gets into some kind of trouble, embarrasses himself and others, and often gets two lovers reconciled. Tora also meets an attractive woman who enjoys Tora's company and his good hearted efforts. The woman happens to have a boyfriend or fiance that Tora learns of at an inopportune time. Wiping away a couple of tears, Tora packs his bags and hits the road for a place to try his luck at sales, if not love.

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If one is going to watch the series, I would recommend watching the films in chronological order. Also, I would recommend watching the first film twice, once with the complete subtitles, and the second time with the commentary. As in other AnimEigo DVDs, there is both subtitling that translates what the characters are saying, but also a second set up titles on the upper part of the screen that explains idiomatic expressions or historical references mentioned by those characters. This is especially important in the "Tora-San" films because of Tora's penchant to speak in nonsense verse, or use humor based on both written and spoken Japanese. Galbraith's commentary is worth listening to as a means of understanding why the "Tora-San" series was so popular, with 48 films made between 1969 and 1996, and how the films are rooted in the everyday life of the Japanese during the time the films were made. Even if one decides that they can't embrace Tora over the course of the series, the first DVD is recommended for those interested in the career of Yoji Yamada and/or Japanese film history in general.

Kiyoshi Atsumi portrayed Torajiro in every film until he died in 1996 at the age of 68. The closest American equivalent I can think of to Tora, in actions and attitude, would be the characters John Candy played for John Hughes, especially the titular Uncle Buck, and the traveling salesman in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Tora likes to present himself as a yakuza, sometimes introducing himself with the open handed pose, although no one ever confuses him with a gangster or professional gambler. In addition to the nonsense verbiage are the malapropisms. Part of the comedy is based on Tora's inappropriate behavior and lack of sophistication. Having dinner at a small yakitori restaurant with one young lady, Tora jokes about their dinner being made from cat intestines. The humor is often broad, and Tora can be boorish. The attraction, at least for a Japanese audience, is that unlike most Japanese, Tora speech and actions were usually never subject to circumspection.

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The films are usually described as comedies. While there are comic moments, with the wordplay, and some slapstick, some of the domestic arguments get serious. The altercations between Tora and Sakura, or Tora and his uncle, are as physical and as hurtful as would be seen in most dramas. Yamada might have been inspired by East of Eden when Tora discovers that the long unseen mother he idealized turns out to be the proprietress of a "love hotel". In addition to family discord, death of a young woman's father takes place in two of the films. In his notes for the set booklet, Alexander Jacoby is more accurate in calling the series bittersweet.

The booklet, which comes with notes by Keven Thomas, Donald Richie and Yamada, that comes with the set, reminded me that Atsumi was a good enough actor that among his earlier films is Bwana Toshi, by Susumi Hani, a filmmaker of the same generation as Yamada, in dire need of rediscovery. The series provided lifetime work not only for the star, but the supporting cast, including Chieko Baisho, who continued to act in Yamada's films outside of the "Tora-San" series, most recently in The Hidden Blade. Ozu mainstay, Chishu Ryu, appeared in forty-five of the films as the neighborhood Buddhist priest. One of many major names to appear in the course of the series, Akira Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura, shows up briefly in the first film as the professor father of a determinedly blue collar son.

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While Yamada wrote or cowrote the four films, he directed the first two in the series. Azuma Morisaki, cowriter of the first film, directed the third film. Shunichi Kobayashi, one of Yamada's other cowriters, directed the fourth film. Yamada returned to direct the rest of the series. One can identify certain visual consistencies with Yamada, especially several full shots of the street where much of the exterior action takes place. The discrepancies in the lives of the working poor with the middle class is something that would be part of the samurai trilogy made almost thirty years later. One can also see elements of the "Tora-San" films in Yamada's most recent film, Kabei, which chronicles the difficulties of a family's everyday existence during World War II, while the father is imprisoned by the Japanese military authorities. Whether one takes to the series is a matter of personal preference. For the serious film scholar, the first Tora-San film is worth studying because of the questions it raises regarding the universality of certain kinds of film narratives, and the limits of translation of written and verbal language. In terms of understanding the work of the still active Yoji Yamada, while the he did direct a handful of films prior to his creation of Tora-San, this is the film that marks the significant beginning of a long career.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 23, 2009 08:01 AM