Tribute to Baisho Chieko
Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp
t.l. Tora-san, il nostro adorabile vagabondo
男はつらいよ (Otoko wa Tsurai yo)
Japan, 1969, 91’, Japanese
Directed by: Yamada Yoji
Script: Morisaki Azuma, Yamada Yoji
Photography (color): Takaha Tetsuo
Editing: Ishii Iwao
Music: Yamamoto Naozumi
Producer: Kamimura Tsutomu
Cast: Atsumi Kiyoshi, Baisho Chieko, Mitsumoto Sachiko, Ryu Chishu, Shimura Takashi, Maeda Gin
Date of First Release in Territory: August 27th, 1969
The Tora-san series ran for a total of 50 episodes over the course of 50 years, including two “postscript” installments made following the death of star Atsumi Kiyoshi in 1995. Nearly all follow the template set by the first film, Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp, which was released in 1969 as a follow-up – and corrective – to a hit TV drama series created and co-scripted by Yamada Yoji.
In the series, broadcast from 1968 to 1969, the peddler hero, Kuruma Torajiro or “Tora” (Atsumi), dies after being bitten by a poisonous snake. Inundated by protest letters from viewers, Yamada revived him in a film.
Released in 1969, Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp, makes no attempt to explain Tora’s resurrection. Instead we first meet him returning to his old stomping grounds of Shibamata, a real neighborhood in Tokyo’s Shitamachi (old downtown) district, after being away for 20 years.
Possessing a gift of gab, he quickly becomes reacquainted with the local temple priest (Ryu Chishu), an aunt (Misaki Chieko) and uncle (Morikawa Shin) who run a dango (dumpling) shop and his half-sister Sakura (Baisho Chieko), who works at a big printing company.
He soon gets into trouble, though, when he accompanies Sakura to an omiai (meeting for the purpose of marriage) arranged by her boss and ruins her chances by his drunken, boorish behavior. The scene is funny – Atsumi is a gifted comic who can get laughs with physical gags that need no translating – but the aftermath is not. Returning to the dango shop, Tora ends up quarreling with his aunt and uncle – and slapping Sakura.
This sort of shocking outburst might have alienated the audience, but in Yamada’s hands it deepens our understanding of the character: The product of a liaison between his father and a geisha, whose education never progressed beyond middle school, Tora is sensitive about his background and lowly social status and, when shamed or provoked, pushes back.
Also, Atsumi’s performance as Tora shows why the “lovable” in the film’s English title fits: His Tora has a warm, emphatic side that is likably sincere, even when the story descends to the tear-jerking sentimental.
Also, Tora is not the only reason the film launched the longest series in the history of cinema. The lightning-fast courtship of Sakura and Hiroshi (Maeda Gin), a shy, decent man who works at a nearby print shop, is an object lesson in effective narrative compression and immediate emotional impact. As a married couple, they became a series standby, with Sakura iconic as Tora’s loving, if often frustrated, sister,
The film also introduces the first “Madonna,” series jargon for the woman Tora falls for in every episode, but never successfully woos. She is Fuyuko (Mitsumoto Sachiko), the daughter of the temple priest. Friendly to Tora, even when he is obviously acting the fool (meaning most of the time), she is also a typical ojosan – an elegantly dressed, perfectly mannered woman who is clearly out of his league.
When the inevitable happens – her engagement to a man of her own station – Tora takes it badly and finally decides to leave Shibamata for the road, one of many trips he is to take over the years. The last we see of him, he is happily selling books at a festival in the countryside with the aid of Noboru (Akino Taisaku), a goofy Shibamata pal who has attached himself to Tora as an apprentice in the art of peddling.
Noboru was to soon depart the series. But in the hearts of Japanese, as so many Japanese themselves often say, Tora lives on forever.
1961 – Nikai no Tanin
1969 – It’s Tough Being a Man
1970 – Where Spring Comes Late
1977 – The Yellow Handkerchief
2002 – The Twilight Samurai
2004 – The Hidden Blade
2006 – Love and Honor
2008 – Kabei: Our Mother
2023 – Mom, Is That You?!