Over the years, Japan has never stopped producing iconic characters: Godzilla, Totoro, Pikachu, Doreamon, Sadako, … etc. Another iconic character, despite never having any kind of international appeal, is Tora-san. Tora-san is not, in contrast to the others, a fantastic beast nor a horrifying ghost, but a male being ever at odds with his environment.
It is high time that international audiences discover Yoji Yamada’s It’s Tough Being a Man and fall in love with this Japanese character immortalized by Kiyoshi Atsumi.
Twenty years after running away from his parental home due to a skirmish with his father, nostalgia compels street peddler Kuruma Torajiro or Tora-san (Kiyoshi Atsumi) to return to his hometown in Shibamata, Katsushika in Tokyo. He quickly reconnects with his aunt (Chieko Misaki) and uncle (Masami Shimojo), who run a dango-shop, and his younger sister Sakura (Chieko Baisho), but it does not take long for Tora-san to create problems in their lives.
Tora-san is, from the very opening of the narrative, endearing and sympathetic. What makes him so charming is his child-like lack of knowledge about the world, his problems of reading the context (and women) as well as his struggle to gauge the impact he has on others. Tora-san is, in fact, stuck between childhood and manhood, between the childlike innocence that marks him and the myriad of expectations of manhood society, i.e. the others, subjects him to. He is, in short, a pure child subjected to the signifier man and brother.
While Tora-san seems to be able to fulfill societal expectations and play a man in the way Japanese society sketches out – like when he formally thanks his aunt and uncle for raising his younger sister, the trouble he inadvertently causes reveals the conflict that marks him – the conflict between his child-like being and an environment structured by ideals and expectations, as well as the fact that the Other is a collection of semblances.
Tora-san, with his innocent and child-like conduct, always falls victim to the semblances concerning the signifiers ‘man’ and ‘older brother’. If it is difficult being a man (within society), it is because our dear Tora-san always ends up being the dupe of the (semblances of the) societal Other – he will always be a misfit – and of the riddle women pose for him.
Beyond making Tora-san lovable and endearing, the three child-like characteristics that mark his conduct also play a central role in making Tora-san, Our lovable Tramp hilarious but, at times, also a bit painful (Narra-note 1). What makes Yamada’s narrative funny (and, in some cases, painful) is not these characteristics as such, but the innocence that characterizes his conduct. Whenever he creates problems for others or whenever he (painfully) disturbs or (comically) ripples the societal semblances, he does so inadvertently.
Besides the comedy related to Tora-san as characters as such, Yamada’s Tora-san, Our lovable Tramp also features environmental comical – slapstick-like – moments. These short bursts of comedy are pleasing and funny because these moments always come unexpected. Yamada is, in fact, able to use the element of surprise in an effective way, because he integrates these elements of comedy in an unforced and natural way into the unfolding of Tora-san’s narrative.
Yamada’s cinematographic composition – a mix of static shots, spatial shots, and tracking shots – is not bad but offers nothing special. The biggest compliment we can give to Yamada’s plain composition is that it allows the laughs and the smiles of the audience come naturally. More sentimental moments, for that matter, are signaled by musical accompaniment. These sentimental moments are, in our view, fundamental to the success of narrative in general and the character of Tora-san as they emphasize that Tora-san, beyond his own will, will always become the dupe of the semblances and the women he falls in love with.
Tora-san, Our lovable Tramp is a piece of Japanese cinema history that no cinephile should miss. Yamada’s narrative is a very enjoyable narrative, offering a balanced mix of comedy, sentimentality, and heartwarming moments – You’ll laugh, you’ll tear up, you’ll feel fuzzy inside. The success of the character of Tora-san, as this narrative beautifully shows, lies in the fact that his innocent and child-like conduct – a conduct dooming him beyond his control to be eternally duped by the semblances of society in general and that strange little sexuated being called woman in particular – confronts us lightheartedly with the tension between subjectivity and society we, as audience, are subjected to as well.
Narra-note 1: The aspect that is most important in creating painful moments in the narrative is, as the scene Tora makes at the Sakura’s omiai (formal marriage interview) illustrates, Tora’s inability to gauge the impact his (semblance-disruptive) behaviour has.