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Most every nation produces popular films not intended for export or considered too "local" to appeal to foreigners. DVD importers have found a gold mine in Japanese samurai pictures, yakuza sagas, ghost stories and even bizarre soft-core horror thrillers. But comedy is a different story. It's been wrongly presumed that Japanese humor is incompatible with western tastes, an illusion perhaps started by bad English language dubbing. The redoubtable AnimEigo Company seeks to break this barrier with the iconographic "Tora-San" films, an amazing comedy series that spans 35 years and 48 installments. That's reportedly the longest film series ever with the same actor in the lead role. Comedian Kiyoshi Atsumi played Tora-San for the entire run from 1969 to 1995.
AnimEigo is the optimal outfit to introduce Tora-San to American DVD. The company's careful presentation rivals Criterion for clarity and attention to detail. English subtitles (we're offered a choice), expert commentary and text extras answer all of our questions about the world of Tora-San, allowing us to learn not only about the movies but about Japanese culture in general. This ability to footnote movies is what makes DVD stand out from previous home video formats; few companies take advantage of it.
Tora-San began as a popular television show starring the comic actor Kiyoshi Atsumi. After the producer killed off the character, public outcry inspired a film series that generated two features per year, sometimes three. We're told that by the fourth or fifth film the series attained record attendance numbers, and maintained them for decades even as the bulk of the once-mighty Japanese film industry imploded. The Tora-San: Collector's Set 1 packages Shochiku's first four Tora-San features, all in color and 'scope.
The first entry Our Lovable Tramp (Otoko wa tsurai yo) wastes no time introducing the complex Tora-San character, who has often been likened to Charlie Chaplin. The comparison is valid if you remember that Chaplin's endearing Little Tramp character is also an impish troublemaker and social disaster. Comic Atsumi interprets the itinerant peddler Tora-San as an impulsive, somewhat dense fellow. He's a master of crude jokes and clever figures of speech, which he usually offers in completely inappropriate circumstances. Tora-San is blind to the embarrassment he causes his family. His pigsty manners and bathroom humor ruin his sister Sakura's (Cheiko Baisho) chances for an arranged marriage. He can become belligerent when he drinks, which makes him the kind of relative you can't take anywhere, an all-round liability. Tora-San breaks the standard Japanese rules of reserve and deportment, throwing his emotions into every momentary concern. If the situation calls for the family to sit still and sober for a photograph, he'll be the one breaking everybody up with a last-second joke.
Tora-San dresses like a low-level yakuza, with a broad waistband, sandals instead of shoes and a cheap coat over his shoulders. It's like having one of Damon Runyon's "colorful" characters for a brother, for Tora-San hasn't a clue that he's socially unacceptable. He's a jolly bull in a china shop.
But (as commentator Stuart Galbraith IV explains) this conflict is what brings the series alive for Japanese audiences. Tora-San is nothing if not sincere. He's the kind of guy who sings in the street when he feels good. He's intensely loyal to his relatives, even if he's the first to admit that his presence is a threat to their peace of mind. Although Tora-San's disastrous matchmaking "help" humiliates Sakura, she never rejects him. The emotional bond is very strong.
The first film sets up the basic pattern. Tora-San returns to his sister, Uncle and Aunt in the Tokyo suburb of Shibamata, staying just long enough to cause a social disaster or two. He then heads off with his (even dimmer) sales disciple to hawk goods in some corner of Japan. Tora-San breaks up Sakura's formal engagement ceremony by slurping his soup, getting plastered and making god-awful jokes. He then almost scuttles her subsequent romance with the hard-working Hiroshi (Gin Maeda). Tora-San's interference almost causes Hiroshi to quit his job and run away. Redemption of a sort comes at Sakura's wedding, where we at first think that Tora-San will cause a scene over Hiroshi's estranged father (Takashi Shimura).
The other given in the series is that Tora-San will fall hopelessly in love with a beautiful woman, only to lose her to someone else. In the first film he's smitten by the daughter of Gozen-sama, a respected priest (the great Chishu Ryu). The daughter thinks Tora-San is funny and gets a little tipsy with him at a fun fair, but Tora-San is in for a rude awakening when a more appropriate suitor comes around. Director Yoji Yamada leans lightly on the bathos, just enough for us to appreciate Tora-San's silent grief. It's just another reason for him to hit the road.
Pictures two through four prove that the Tora-San character can support any number of family crises and romantic disappointments: Tora-San's Cherished Mother (Zoku otoko wa tsurai yo), Tora-San, His Tender Love (Otoko was tsurai you: Futen no tora) and Tora-San's Grand Scheme (Shin otoko wa tsurai yo). Another potential lover appears as the daughter of an old friend, and in another episode Tora-San bumbles through the arranged marriage process. Chieko Baisho returns in each episode as Sakura, as do Shin Morikawa and Cheiko Misaki as his endlessly patient Uncle and Auntie.
Kiyoshi Atsumi is impressively durable in the lead role. His thick-skulled stubbornness soon becomes as endearing as his hearty outbursts of affection. We don't expect Tora-San to wise up or mature any more than we expect Laurel and Hardy to start behaving like sane citizens. Personally, I've never understood the exact appeal of revered European comics like Totò and Bourvil; which perhaps indicates that they're only in need of an AnimEigo-style formal introduction. Tora-San is a worthy, amusing personality that could very well catch on here.
AnimEigo's Tora-San: Collector's Set 1 contains four beautiful transfers (from HD originals) with excellent color and sound. The thorough extras do a fine job of translating Tora-San's appeal for the American audience. The subtitle options give the viewer a choice of yellow or white text, with or without extra explanatory subs for odd phrases and culture-specific terms. Four or five experts edit these subtitle tracks, which never fudge meanings or take short cuts with anachronistic phrases.
Each show comes with exhaustive program notes (a compilation of the explanatory subtitles), cast and crew bios, trailers and image galleries. An interactive map extra shows us where Shibamata is and traces Tora-San's travels to the north for summer and the south for winter.
The most anticipated extra is Stuart Galbraith IV's friendly commentary, which provides the best possible introduction to this unfamiliar cinematic territory He gives the expected authoritative background on director Yoji Yamada and other cast members. We learn quite a bit about the interesting comic Kiyoshi Atsumi, who had a checkered background in the post-war black market, and straightened out his lifestyle only after surviving a three-year bout with tuberculosis. That street experience came in handy forming the rougher aspects of the Tora-San character; it's said that Atsumi once turned curious yakuza away from a location set by simply walking up and staring them in the eye. Galbraith is also generous with cultural details, telling us which Tokyo trains to take to reach the Shibamata neighborhood, where a statue of Tora-San has been erected right at the station.
According to Stuart Galbraith, Tora-San's basic appeal to Japanese viewers has two components. As a nostalgic record of neighborhood and family values, the series traces the ups and downs of three decades of Japanese life, in boom times and through various economic setbacks. A later show reportedly comments on the Kobe earthquake disaster. Secondly, the effusive Tora-San encourages the inwardly inclined Japanese to be more demonstrative with their feelings, to not hold back honest emotional displays.
Galbraith's commentary inspired most of the content of this review. The author's reactions to Sakura's wedding ceremony take on weight when he admits to having gone through such a ceremony himself -- his "wedding planner" lady was an essential hire. As a researcher who has interviewed innumerable Japanese actors and filmmakers, Galbraith includes personal greetings from several long-time Tora-San cast members. Over the span of 48 films, he explains, some roles were taken over by new actors, while others made the series into a permanent career. The Tora-San movies only ended with the death of Kiyoshi Atsumi in 1996.
Galbraith IV also compiled the insert booklet in which Kevin Thomas, Alexander Jacoby, Michael Jeck and Donald Richie joining him in essays on the series. The Tora-San series is meant to continue, and AnimEigo's Tora-San: Collector's Set 1 gives it an excellent launch.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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