Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp (1969)
From 1969 to 1995, the moon-faced Kiyoshi Atsumi played Tora-san, a n'er do well itinerant salesman in the series It's Tough Being a Man. 48 times he was drawn back to his small town of Shibamata, falling into unrequited love and drunkenly offending everyone in sight. Penniless, loveless, foul-mouthed, and adorable, Tora-san became a national icon, his films akin to national holidays, released almost every New Year and August Obon season, until Atsumi's death in 1996.
The Japan Society is screening 8 of these films over the next 8 months, hand-selected by director Yoji Yamada, who helmed all but 2 of the features. Intensely curious about this character, whose only US correlative in terms of popularity and tone is Chaplin (or, as Donald Richie argues, Harry Langdon), I saw the first entry in the series, 1969's Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp.
Not surprisngly, I'm with the Japanese public on this one. Atsumi is a wonderful performer, his pratfalls keyed not only on the fall, but it's timing. He often tumbles in the background of Yamada's elegant widescreen frame (the print was sparkling: I believe Shochiku struck all new prints for the 40th anniversary of the first film). He sprinkles in little idiosyncracies, the way he blows in empty glasses while awaiting his booze, his penchant for discussing his bathroom habits, and, with his coat draped over his shoulders, his loping, childlike gait. His comedy is certainly bittersweet, the nature of his foolishness rendering him an outcast. One facet of the series is his endless string of unrequited loves. His main role is as a catalytic force for the rest of the characters, setting in motion a series of disruptions that eventually joins a more traditional couple, while Tora-san hits the road again, alone.
Yoji Yamada was present after the screening on a digital feed, and he had some fascinating tidbits to add: First, the Tora-san character was conceived for TV, and he was killed off at the end of the run after an unfortunate run-in with some wild snakes. After an outpouring of letters and angry phone calls, he resuscitated him for film, and the rest is history. Donald Richie claims that the character was inspired by Ozu, whom Yamada admired. But Yamada placed his origin back to the Edo period, where a traditional "fool" figure was central to popular narratives.