Most Americans have probably never heard of Kiyoshi Atsumi, the late Japanese actor who starred in all 48 Tora-san movies before his death in 1996. But the films are now available on DVDs, with subtitles — and director Yoji Yamada is still alive and kicking in Tokyo.
Here are the opening scenes and theme song:
The series, perhaps the longest movie series ever, started out with the working title of "It's Not Easy Being a Man," and if Yamada was not the Sholom Aleichem of Japan, he came pretty close to being an epic storyteller.
Atsumi played a character named "Tora" (Tiger), his given name in the film series being Torajiro. As ''Tora-san'' he was an itinerant salesman going here and there across the Japanese archipelago with a brown suitcase, a pair of seta sandals, a bellyband, a good fortune necklace and the misfortune of being — always, it seemed — the wrong man in the wrong place, especially when it came to finding a woman to love and to hold.
In every movie — 48 in all, and they always opened in Japan on New Year's Day each year — Tora-san traveled to a new city or island village in Japan, wooed a woman from the area, got her and then lost her, and the next film would take off from there. Yamada wrote all the scripts, Atsumi became a national folk hero and the movies did a great box office year after year.
Now he's gone. Atsumi passed away in 1996, lung cancer, a long life, a good life, but in the end, cut short by cancer. And the film series stopped. You can still catch some glimpses of Tora-san on YouTube videos, and there's one site in China that has all the films dubbed into Mandarin online for free. But basically, outside Japan, nobody has ever heard of Tora-san.
I have an idea, a suggestion for the -Earthquake, post-Tsunami, post-Fukushima Japan of 2011. Why not bring Tora-san back now, with a new and rising Japanese star to take over the role that Atsumi so deftly played for many years and use the new film to give renewed hope to the Japanese people with a Tora-san comedy that brings some cinematic joy and happiness to a very depressed people?
Yamada could direct, a new star and leading lady could be hired, and Japanese filmgoers would have something to take their minds off the troubles they have known this terribly tragic year.
I am a big fan of the Tora-san movies, having seen them all on videotape in the 1990s when I lived in Tokyo, and taken a few of the New Year's Day openings at movie theaters around town, too. Tora-san is more than a Japanese character in a Japanese film series. He is Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Groucho Marx and Peter Sellers all wrapped up in one. He is a universal character and for his films, you certainly do not have to be Japanese to enjoy them, and you don't have to speak word of nihongo either.
Just sit back and watch the reels unspool. Atsumi was a comic genius, reared in the TV business (where in fact the Tora-san character first appeared) and immensely talented. When he died, a part of Japan died with him.
When I was working in Tokyo as a newspaper editor in the 1990s, a local TV station there contacted me about my professed interest in the Tora-san movies and asked me to appear on a Tokyo TV variety show dressed up as the travelling salesman Torajiro himself.
So I rented a Tora-san costume, put on the signature hat and ill-fitting clothes and walked around Shinjuku's entertainment district for a few hours with a film crew following me. The result was edited down to a five-minute segment that made me look totally ridiculous (but charming), and I had fun doing the show and even got paid for it. Best adventure I ever had in Japan.
Here's a video memory of the variety show's out-takes. Enjoy.
And better yet, rent some of the Tora-san DVDs and see what the fuss was all about. He might come back to life yet!