Tora-San: Our Lovable Tramp
In 1969 an old-fashioned (for the time), sentimental melodrama appeared on Japanese movie screens called Otoko wa Tsurai Yo (or, It's Tough Being a Man). The film's protagonist was a homely but self-assured peddler named Tora, who almost messed up his little sister's chance of finding a decent husband and who fell in love with the beautiful priest's daughter, only to have his heart broken and hit the road again at the end of the film. The movie was so well-received by Japanese audiences that a sequel was produced. Then another. And another, and another... for 26 years and 48 films. It became the longest-running box office series of all time, in any nation.
So what made viewers come back to the series, again and again, for so long? After all, the Tora-San films were terribly formulaic: Tora-san would come into town, act foolish and make an ass of himself, managing to screw up while helping a friend at the same time, all the while falling in love with a local beauty and losing her, only to skip town again as the end credits roll.
Every one of the films held to this formula - but there lay the secret of the series's success: audiences knew what they were going to get, and they looked forward to what new variation would be played against this familiar theme. Each film also took place in a different locale - usually some postcard-perfect, picturesque village not known for its modernity, and so took on a folksy quality. Tora-san himself was a product of the past (the itinerant peddler having all but disappeared from Japan by the end of the 60's), so he fit right in.
Tora himself is a lovable (more or less) loser. He's uncouth, having no table manners and drinking too much. He always knows the perfectly wrong thing to say. He doesn't make much money at his trade, but is nevertheless a free spirit, able to pick up and travel where and when he pleases, usually going around to various local festivals to peddle his little gadgets. Despite his faults, though, he cares about the people around him, and even when it causes him great sacrifice, goes out of his way to help them (mucking things up terribly in the process, though things always come out aright in the end).
Director Yoji Yamada and actor Kiyoshi Atsumi became a solid creative team that stuck together through nearly three decades. Yamada made other films during their time together, some even winning major awards; but he considered this his life's work. And Atsumi had appeared in several comedies previously - but of course as a result of the series's success he became all but synonymous with his character, to the extent that he even made public appearances in Tora-san's usual costume of the checkered jacket, belly wrap, and clogs. The series came to an end only at his death in 1996.
Modern viewers can look back at the original film of the series, or perhaps some of the early ones, and get a sense that we are looking at a simpler time, a vanished way of life - a look at rural Japan that no longer exists. (Of course, young people often think that about any film from more than 30 or so years ago...) But the thing is, even in 1969, when Japan - like the rest of the world - was going about great social upheaval, many Japanese audiences were feeling nostalgic even then for such a (mythical) vanished past. The Tora-san films, with their folkways and serene locations, gave people the idea that they were glimpsing a better, more manageable world, like the one they knew when they were younger.
The Tora-san films were easy, gentle comedies, where the drama never reached too far into viewers' lives, so that they could feel safe in its embrace, lose themselves for a few hours in its simpler world. All plotlines would be neatly wrapped up, and the only person coming out badly was the lovable peddler Tora himself - who could, naturally, be counted on to bounce back by the beginning of the next picture.