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Tora-San: Collector's Set 1 (4pc)

 

Directed by Yoji Yamada
 

Tora-san : Our Lovable Tramp aka  Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo (1969)

Tora-san's Cherished Mother aka Zoku Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo (1969)

Tora-san, His Tender Love aka Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo: Futen No Tora (1970)

Tora-san's Grand Scheme aka Shin Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo (1970)

 

TORA-SAN, a 48-film series, is by far the longest-running film series in Japanese history and the second-longest overall in the world. Typical story lines have Tora-san, a suitcase carrying, leisure-suit wearing, traveling salesman visiting different parts of Japan, where he meets a beautiful young woman, is smitten, and tells her if she ever needs help, she should come visit him in his hometown. After returning home to his family, which disapproves of his wandering lifestyle, the damsel in distress shows up, and Tora-san falls in love. Alas, his attempts to help her, and win her heart, invariably cause her to fall for someone else. Included in the set are the first four films of the series, “It's Tough being a Man”, “Tora-san's Cherished Mother”, “Tora-san, His Tender Love”, and “Tora-san's Grand Scheme”.

Comments

Your basic garden-variety film fan prides himself on more than a passing acquaintance with movies made in countries and languages other than their own. While art houses have permitted access to the likes of Bergman, Bunuel, Truffaut and Fellini, we have the home video medium to thank for movies from more obscure sources and those more deeply etched into the culture of any given region. Taking Japanese films as an example, in addition to more familiar directors like Kurosawa, Kobayashi, Inagaki and Mizoguchi, we are now able to order up Mikio Naruse, Yazujiro Ozu, Kon Ichikawa, Sadao Yamanaka and Masahiro Shinoda - to name the first ones that come to mind - from local or imported sources, and enjoy them regardless of video region coding. Anime? Anything we want, many with English subtitles, at the click of the finger, from creative forces other than Miyazaki.

That's a pretty impressive list, as far as it goes, but there are treasures, great and small, about which we Westerners are pretty clueless. Among these are the 48 Tora-san movies that came out about twice yearly from 1969 to 1995 – all with the same actor in the lead role and the same director (in all but two). If you thought Ozu sums up the gist of everyday life in postwar Japan, you are in for something of a surprise – a shock for some.

The Tora-san movies play more like a TV family sitcom – indeed, that's what the story was before the TV series came to an a sudden and untimely death. The transition from the small screen to the big screen was natural enough, though the cumulative effect exceeded every imaginable expectation. The hero of these adventures is one Torajiro Kuruma – "Tora-san" or "Our Lovable Tramp" – though he should not be confused with the Charlie Chaplin character. Stuart Galbraith IV, who provides exhaustive details and background for the series on the audio commentary for the first movie (not coincidentally titled "Tora-san" - Our Lovable Tramp") sees him more as Oliver Hardy or Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden, and I would have to agree.

Hardy and Kramden have an exaggerated view of their abilities and their effect on others (dare we call them "liars"?) and while they often seem to mean well, in their small ways they are not above running roughshod over those they obviously care about. The difference between Tora-san and Hardy or Kramden, as I see it, is that the Americans keep their humiliations of others relatively intimate, whereas Tora-san is so oblivious to the juggernaut that he is, he is perfectly willing to embarrass those he most cares about publicly. (It is of no small importance that neither Kramden nor Hardy find themselves knee-deep in booze, which accounts for a good deal of Tora-san outrageous behavior)

Depending on how you feel about all this, and the subsequent forgiveness by the person so humiliated, you will either have a good time or be royally pissed off. In the first film I was very much in the latter group since there was nothing in the movie that could explain Sakura's acceptance of her brother's careless and, on once occasion, violent, behavior to her. It's the sort of thing that a familiarity with the TV series or (thank you, Stuart) a better appreciation of Japanese family ties would have explained. I only say that you should come to the first film prepared. Tora-san might not be as "lovable" as advertised. From the second film on, and with Sakura happily married, Tora-san is a far less distressing character, but then he also becomes predictable and less dimensional.

Back to Oliver and Ralph for a moment: American audiences both identify with and feel an appropriate level of embarrassment for the buffoonery of Hardy and Kramden, and we know and expect that they will get theirs soon enough. And, even though a lesson is meted out to Ralph in every episode of "The Honeymooners" and in just about every movie – short and long – of Oliver & Hardy, we see them return the next time for another round of much the same. It's as though we ourselves receive the pie in the face that these guys get. Anyhow, it beats the hell out of going to confession.

Tora-san (Kiyoshi Atsimi) is uneducated, a drunkard, a gambler, and a low level yakuza (i.e. a black market peddler) who left home in his teens. When he finally returns after 20 years, he finds his parents and older brother dead, leaving his only surviving sibling – a sister (Chieko Baisho) whom he enjoyed making fun of as a child and seems to feel it would be a betrayal of his dignity to see her otherwise now even though she has a responsible job and an education. The fact that she is also beautiful must really rankle his spirit no end.

In much the same way as any American sitcom, the plots for the Tora-san movies are roughly the same: Tora-san finds himself in one or another Japanese locale, meets a new beauty, falls in love with her, and thanks to his foolish and social awkwardness and stupidity, helps to bring about a match with another suitor, leaving Tora-san to hit the road once again. (I'm not entirely sure why, but I can't help but think of the TV series The Fugitive, with Tora-san as both Janssen and the one-armed man.)

Like many a TV series, each movie will introduce a new lovely actress and feature one or two A-list actors in recurring and new roles. In the first movie, for example, no less a presence than Takashi Shimura, the leader of the Seven Samurai, delivers a touching show-stopping scene as the repentant father of the groom.

One parting thought: 40 years of postwar Japan is a long enough period to have witnessed profound social, economic and technological change. I gather that Tora-san, the man, is little affected, but the streets where he walks and the people he meets have. I'm looking forward to seeing how that all works out.

Leonard Norwitz

DVD Reviews

DVD Review: Animeigo - Region 1 - NTSC

DVD Box Cover

   

CLICK to order from:

Distribution Animeigo - Region 1 - NTSC
Video 2.35:1 Aspect Ratio
Average Bitrate: 6.5 mb/s
NTSC 720x480 29.97 f/s   

NOTE: The Vertical axis represents the bits transferred per second. The Horizontal is the time in minutes.

Sample Bitrate:

Audio Japanese (Dolby Digital) 
Subtitles English, None
Features

Release Information:
Studio: Animeigo

Aspect Ratio:
Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1

Edition Details:

• Audio Commentary for "Tora-san 1" with Film Historian Stuart Galbraith IV
• 28-page Booklet with photos and essays by Stuart Galbraith IV, Kevin Thomas, Alexander Jacoby, Michael Jeck, Donald Richie, and a message from Yoji Yamada.
• Program Notes for each film
• Cast & Crew Bios
• Interactive maps
• Image Galleries
• Trailers

DVD Release Date: November 24th, 2009

Four Slimline cases in lightweight slipcover 

 

Comments:

TImage:
Oddly enough, these movies are all picture-boxed – and not by a little (see caps) - leaving fewer available bits in the file to fill your display. Each movie comes complete on a separate single-layered disc. The bit rate could be higher, but I don't think it would have made an appreciable difference as to my concerns. There is surprisingly little print damage, but the image on all four films has a strong green color cast that, together with a lack of contrast, flattens the image. (Oddly enough the title card seems to about correctly balanced.) The first three movies are much affected by color cast issues, the fourth less so – in fact, there are even occasional splashes of red there! The thinness of the image may be due to other factors.

In any case, grain is left intact, and there is modest edge enhancement – not that we see much of it because the image is so (distressingly, to my eyes) lifeless. This relative lack of black or contrast may have been deliberate, for it certainly results in a consistency that makes every scene, indoors and out look like a 1960s TV sitcom set. The image is progressive and shows very little digital disturbance on its way to DVD, save enhancement. Sharpness is quite good, though the lack of contrast makes it appear softer than it is. The picture, even taking into account its being on DVD, is not really suitable for large projection.

By the way, Amazon incorrectly lists the aspect ratio as 1.66:1. These films are all anamorphic 2.35:1.

Audio:
The audio is serviceable, with crispy clear dialogue, occasional ambient effects such as in the market places and other outdoor locales. The mostly Western 1960s pop TV music fills the space nicely, even though mono.

Extras:
For all its historical credentials, the Tora-san movies are not The Sopranos, yet the extra features are extensive, covering in a variety of formats more than you could possibly want to know about the context in which these films occur as well as juicy factoids about cast, crew and production. We're talking a real education here about a genre relatively unknown to those of us raised on samurai flics.

First there is Mr. Galbraith's commentary, which he provides only for the first movie. However, he uses that opportunity to expand his observations to the series in general and the state of the genre as well as a considerable amount of background for Kiyoshi Atsumi, whose death at 68 in 1996 pretty much led to the end of the series, and Yoji Yamada, who has gone onto direct an honorable samurai trilogy of his own (Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, Love and Honor). I have to say that my initial impression of Toro-san was greatly softened by his comments.

The booklet offers essays by Mr. Galbraith, Kevin Thomas, Alexander Jacoby, Michael Jeck, Donald Richie, as well as an appreciative message from Yoji Yamada. The essays address different aspects of the Tora-san series or the context in which they appear. Definitely worth a read.

The map that shows where each movie takes place is useful, but calling it "interactive" is something of an exaggeration (the ghost of Tora-san lurketh here.)

Operations, Subtitles, Booklet & Box Design:
One thing this DVD set has going for it is the way it treats translation. There is not only the usual subtitled translation, minus the usual grammatical missteps, but the ongoing program notes, often relating to translation issues, help clarify idioms and slang considerably. There is also a novel and useful approach to the subtitling, which is to give people in the same frame different color subtitles (yellow, green or red). The subtitles are a little too bright for my taste, however. I should mention before I forget that the photos in the booklet are superb – both in content and execution. Too bad the DVD image didn't look this good.

Recommendation : 7
My own experience with these films suggests a rental before you purchase. I just checked, and Netflix has them. If you like, you should purchase if for no other reason than for booklet. I did find the image quality daunting on front projection, not for any lack of resolution.
 

Leonard Norwitz
LensViews
December 13th, 2009

 



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DVD Box Cover

   

CLICK to order from:

Distribution Animeigo - Region 1 - NTSC



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