I would like to give credit where credit is due. Videos are from YouTube and other sources such as NicoNico while Oricon rankings and other information are translated from the Japanese Wikipedia unless noted.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Kiyoshi Atsumi -- Otoko wa Tsurai yo (男はつらいよ)

Many was a Sunday afternoon in my childhood when my family went to Toronto's Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre to catch a Tora-san movie. The official title of one of world cinema's longest-running movie series (48 movies in all) was "Otoko wa Tsurai yo"(It's Tough Being a Man), but people on both sides of the Pacific can just mention the lead character by name for instant recognition.

For the uninitiated, the late Kiyoshi Atsumi(渥美清)played the short-tempered if kind-hearted traveling salesman Torajiro Kuruma(車寅次郎)who traveled the highways and byways of Japan while his family took care of a sweets shop in his hometown of Shibamata, Katsushika Prefecture. The plots (as well as the characters) were virtually identical throughout the series: Tora drops in unannounced at the shop, has a fight with the family, runs off in a huff, meets girl, loses girl, and heads back out to sell once again. Although my Japanese comprehension wasn't that sharp at the time, my brother and I just enjoyed Tora-san's bursts of temper and his awkwardness around the Madonna (the nickname for any of his 48 "romantic interests") of the movie.

As for the cookie-cutter nature of the series, I think a lot of the most famous series (TV or movie) happily follow this pattern (the long-running TV show "Mito Komon"is probably the other most famous example) since the Showa-era Japanese at least got a certain amount of comfort from knowing how their favorite characters would turn out. No M. Night Shamalayan-type twist endings here.

The theme song, which was just titled "Otoko wa Tsurai yo" and released as a single in 1970 although the first movie had been shown back in 1969, wasn't a hit at all but has become one of the most recognized theme songs. I think most people can still say the opening words before the song: "I was born and raised in Shibamata, Katsushika". And I think the theme fits the character of Tora-san: Showa-era, wistful and happy-go-lucky.

The video above has the full version of the theme.

The above video here shows a scene from the very first movie of the series, released in August 1969. The notable thing about Tora-san here is that he wore spats instead of his usual wooden clogs.

Tora-san welcomes visitors to Shibamata Station.

A mural wall devoted to Tora-san at the museum.
A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Tora-san museum...of course, in Shibamata, although it was quite a hike from the neighbourhood portrayed in the movies. Since Atsumi's passing in 1995, a statue of Tora-san has been erected in front of Shibamata Station. The museum itself has everything a Tora-san fan could ever want: posters of every movie, a wall with drawings of every one of the salesman's loves, and even a mockup of Tora's Shibamata, among other exhibits.

And just one more piece of personal trivia: in the first month of my long life in Japan, I lived in Shibamata before finding my apartment in Chiba Prefecture.


  1. Great article! Tora - san made me laugh, cry and think almost every movie. It was and remains a great series to enjoy. I can't wait to visit Shimabata.

    1. Hello, Riki Judo Dojo out in Arizona!

      Thanks very kindly for your comments. Tora-san was one of my early favourite aspects of Japanese popular culture...a very comfy story despite some of the battles that took place (notably Tora vs Tako).

      Shibamata is indeed a fine neighbourhood to visit. Hope you have a chance to get there soon!


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