Japan’s Favorite Film Star Returns : Movies: The ambling Everyman Tora-san is in his 45th film in the series that started in 1969. “It’s Hard Being a Man” has the same popular formula.

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Japanese moviegoers again are standing in long lines in the freezing cold to see a film with a story line and ending they already know.

The attraction? Tora-san, the ambling, lovable Everyman whose down-home frankness and big heart have made him one of Japan’s most familiar cultural icons and the star of the world’s longest-running film series.

The 45th installment in the “Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo” (“It’s Hard Being a Man”) series opened the day after Christmas. The basic story line has hardly changed since the series started in 1969: Tora-san goes on a trip, falls in love with a beautiful woman but often ends up playing matchmaker for her instead, comes home for consolation and then takes off on another trip, trademark suitcase in hand, while his family frets about him.


The female star changes in each film, as does the locale for Tora-san’s trips. Most of the movies open with an often hilarious dream sequence that deals with a certain theme--education, marriage, work--that resurfaces later.

Despite the films’ many familiar aspects, the wandering trinket-seller still packs them in. The series remains the greatest moneymaker for Shochiku Co. Ltd., with each picture pulling in about 1.7 million viewers and $8 million.

Director Yoji Yamada says audiences would be disappointed if he tinkered with the recipe.

“It’s like when customers go to a traditional shop well-known for its wagashi (Japanese sweets)--they want to get the same flavor. We have to respond to the same kind of desire in our viewers,” he said in an interview published in the Star Channel Program Guide.

Film critics say the Tora-san films strike a chord in Japanese viewers, representing an idyllic lifestyle unfettered by the woes of modernity and materialism.

“Everything about Tora-san--his clothes, his language, his outlook on life--suggests the long-lost world of artisans and small merchants, large families and tightly knit neighborhood communities where the policeman knows the bean curd maker and values are fast and firm,” film scholar Ian Buruma said.

Japanese felt these traditions eroding during the rapid postwar industrialization, and Tora-san became a way to preserve them, film critic Mark Schilling said.


“Tora-san came along at a time when there was a big dislocation in Japanese society, when people were leaving their families in the countryside to work in the city,” he said. “People go to see him to get a taste of home.”

It’s no coincidence that the films come out annually just before the New Year holidays, when many Japanese return to their hometowns to be with their families--or wish that they could.

A second film used to open each year during another major family holiday in August, but the schedule was getting to be a bit much for the main actor, 64-year-old Kiyoshi Atsumi, and others working on the series, so Shochiku decided in 1989 to just make one picture a year.

Another part of Tora-san’s appeal is his bumbling but good-natured manner and willingness to help others. For this reason, he’s often compared to Charlie Chaplin.

“Tora-san is something we all think we are in some way,” said Schilling. “We’re not all serious workers, doing what we’re expected to do, and the Japanese are no exception.”

The Tora-san phenomenon has been hard to translate. The films are often shown in Los Angeles, but rarely play elsewhere in the United States and other parts of the world. The total overseas take per film is usually a mere $150,000.


With the same cast and sets, Shochiku manages to keep production costs low. Just a few scenes are shot on location.

Even Tora-san’s outfit--a loud, checkered suit, simple blue shirt and fedora hat--hasn’t changed.

“Mainly, we just wash them,” Shochiku spokesman Hiroshi Onishi said with a hearty laugh.