As the 50th anniversary of the Tora-san movie series in Japan approaches…
This blogger lived in Tokyo for five years in the 1990s, and while I was there I developed a strong interest in the long series of Tora-san movies by director Yoji Yamada.
As readers familiar with Japanese cinema know, Tora-san
is the name of the character played by the late Atsumi Kiyoshi in the
long-running “Otoko wa Tsurai Yo” film series. And the 50th anniversary of the Tora-san series — 48 movies in all — will begin in 2019.
A friend of mine in Japan, an American who is a longtime resident there, has seen all 48 of the movies and has also appeared on TV shows in Tokyo talking about the movie series and its star.
In November 1995, I appeared in a brief 5-minute segment on a Japanese TV variety show, dressed up as Tora-san — suit, sandals and all — while walking around the streets of Shinjuku. The actual shoot took three hours or takes and re-takes, but the final segment that appeared on nationwide TV was just a few minutes long.
Here are some of my recollections:
“One of my particular interests when I lived in Japan was Tora-san. I
don’t know why, I just liked him, his character, the movies he was in.
I guess I’m just a fan of the Tora-san movies and the star of the
long-running series, the late Atsumi Kiyoshi (1928-1996). I’ve seen
most of the Tora-san movies on video, from the first film released in
1969 to the last in the series, Number 48, released in December 1995.
“In addition, in the early 1990s, when I was working in Tokyo as a
reporter for an English-language newspaper, I had the opportunity to
attend several press conferences where director Yoji Yamada spoke
about the long-lasting Tora-san phenomenon. And like many Tora-san
fans, I made the film fan pilgrimage to Shibamata in Tokyo’s
Katsushika Ward several times, walking through the narrow the
shoten-gai past Tora-san’s dango-ya and into the nearby shrine,
noshing on tasty yakitori sold from sidewalk stalls along the way. And
every summer, for old time’s sake, I took the “yagiri no watashi”
ferry from one side of the Edogawa River to the other (and back — all
for 200 yen), a scene that appears in some of the early Tora-san
”It was my way of paying respect to the Atsumi Kiyoshi and to the
whole Tora-san phenomenon. I can’t explain it, really, but I was and
still am a big fan of the films. In the early 1990s, I waited outside
film theaters showing the latest Tora-san movie during the New Year’s
season with hundreds of elderly Japanese, waiting for their chance to
catch another glimpse of Torajiro Kuruma, the character played in all
the films by Atsumi Kiyoshi. 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995 — every
December I was out there in line waiting to get in. It felt like a
kind of a ritual, a tradition and it was fun to be a part of it.
Inside the theater, once the curtain went up, the latest installment
in the series would begin and I would sit there enthralled with the
music, the familiar cast of characters, the Shibamata set, the scenes
of everyday life that I — as a foreigner — could not always see by
myself. The Tora-san films opened up a window on Japan for me that was and still is invaluable.
”A few years back, in November 1995, I was contacted by a producer at
Tokyo-TV (Channel 12) about appearing on an upcoming variety show
about foreigners in Japan: their hobbies, their special interests,
their after-work activities. Word had somehow reached the producers
that I was a fan of the Tora-san films and they asked me if I would be
interested in being a part of the show on November 13. Sure, I said,
sounds like fun!
”For my segment, I was dressed up by the wardrobe stylist in a
Tora-san suit, complete with haramaki, sandals, old-fashioned
“dabu-shirt,” omomori and the famous brown suitcase Tora-san always
carries around with him. I was filmed walking around the streets of
Shinjuku for three hours in this get-up, visiting a small yatai and
drinking some sake, going into a karaoke place to sing the Tora-san
theme song and greeting people, young and old, on the streets. I shook
hands with bar hostesses and drunk salarymen as Tora-san, carrying the suitcase from street corner to street corner, and trying my best to
walk in those seta.
”From the the three-hour video shoot, the producers chose about 45
seconds for me to make my debut on Japanese TV and midway through the show, introduced by American TV star in Japan Dave Spector, my brief segment aired.
The night walking around Kabukicho was a real adventure
and it opened my eyes up further to the amazing “drawing power” of
Tora-san. I mean, I don’t look like Tora-san at all, but because of
the costume I was in, a rented Tora-san outfit, I was transformed in
the eyes of passersby into a symbol of one of Japan’s most famous film
”People didn’t look at my face, they “took in” the whole outfit in
one glance and actually saw, not me, but Tora-san on the streets of
Kabukicho. Young people, old people, salarymen, office ladies,
gangsters, peep show toots, even children reached out to shake my
hand, to pat me on the back or say “Gambatte, Tora-san!” as the TV
camera crew followed my stroll. Young college students called out and
said “Hello, Tora-san!” even though they knew that I was just a
foreigner having some fun with an outfit.
”It was truly amazing for me, a foreigner who had not been in Japan
for that long, to witness the reactions from passersby. The experience
made me realize how close people still felt to Tora-san at the time,
even in this age of hi-tech mobile phones and computers.
“That night in Kabukicho even young people who had never seen
a Tora-san movie were delighted to “bask” in his “presence” — hat and
suitcase and all — even though it was just an illusion created by
some enterprising TV producers. I hope to rent a Tora-san suit again
someday and do some more ”Tora-san-ing” in Tokyo again, even though the man who brought the character to life is no longer alive.
I still want to learn more about why Tora-san was such a beloved character in the Japanese imagination. If you see me pass by, in your dreams, by all means say hello.