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.|
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.