So what's Tora-san, a bumbling traveling salesman, doing on a blog called Asia Shock? What's so shocking about him? Well it may come as something of a shock to those new to the film series (an amazing 48 installments from 1969 to 1996) just how hilarious, multi-dimensional and downright grok-worthy this low-level yakuza huckster really is.
I'd seen a Tora-san film years ago, when my awareness of Japan and Japanese film was still somewhat green, and I confess I just didn't get it. I wondered what all the fuss was about (Tora-san is a national treasure in Japan). I believe I characterized the series as "tepid" in Warring Clans, Flashing Blades (a sin for which I've been chastised by fellow Japanese film nerd D. Trull). But sitting down with the new box set from AnimEigo (films 1 - 4) provided a what-was-I-thinking? experience unlike any in recent memory. I fucking LOVE Tora-san!
A number of elements combine to create the unique and, sure, I'll say it, heart-warming Tora-san experience. First off, there's the performance of the films' star, Kiyoshi Atsumi (1928 - 1996). Vacillating wildly between street-wise scammer, moony schoolboy, angry drunk, lighthearted drifter, caustic upbraider, foul-mouthed joker, kind-hearted caretaker, weepy penitent, violent hothead, and forlorn loner, Atsumi deftly blends the strands into a complex yet seamless and fully-realized character. When he's not getting up to this or that wacky scheme, he's falling for some beauty who considers him charming yet ultimately just a friend. Then there's his family and an odd assortment of neighborhood characters, all endlessly sympathetic yet wary of their fractious friend. These folks reside in Shibamata in Katsushita, Tokyo, a nostalgic locality centered on a Buddhist temple, and it is the dumpling shop run by his aunt and uncle which serves as Tora-san's home base between sojourns (for he invariably wears out his welcome and winds up hitting the road).
Based on a TV series, the first film was an instant hit, featuring a guest appearance by the legendary Takashi Shimura (Seven Samurai, Ikiru). The guest star thing became a feature of the series; eventually, everyone who was anyone in Japanese film turned up in a Tora-san picture including the great Toshiro Mifune (he's in #38). The second film in the series features the prolific character actor Eijiro Tono, as well as Tsutomu Yamazaki (whom you'll remember from Tampopo and High and Low). In the third installment, look for Bokuzen Hidari, that ubiquitous, rubber-faced old man you've seen in so many Japanese films. In addition, Shochiku contract actor and Ozu's go-to guy Chishu Ryu has a recurring role as the head priest at the local temple, forever castigating Tora-san for his shortcomings.
My advice to anyone who digs Japanese film is to go pick up this box set. It's great, features informative liner notes, and the sales will encourage AnimEigo to keep putting out more. Like the old saying goes, they just don't make 'em like this anymore, and in these uncertain times, you never know when stuff like this will poof out of existence.
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