Tora-san’s Runaway (Japan, 1970) [Japan Society]

The Otoko wa Tsurai yo (“It’s tough being a man”) series, colloquially known as the Tora-san series by its fans, is the longest running film series in Japan (by number of titles), and the longest running series worldwide to star the same actor, Kiyoshi Atsumi. While it does not have the same worldwide box office appeal as Godzilla, the series has nonetheless developed a solid footing in Japan’s cultural zeitgeist, one that remains strong to this day. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first film’s release, It’s Tough Being a Man (1969), the Japan Society of New York is showing several newly restored titles as part of its “Monthly Classics” series. Among these is the fifth film in the series, Tora-san’s Runaway, released in 1970, written by Yoji Yamada and Akira Miyazaki, and directed by Yamada.

Tora-san’s Runaway begins with a familiar pattern. After an ominous dream foretelling the death of his uncle, Tora-san returns home riddled with a guilty conscience for all the trouble that he’s caused his family through his vagrant lifestyle. He hopes to partly make up for it by paying for his uncle’s funeral. Fortunately, Tora-san returns home to find that his uncle is in good health, and the confusion was the result of a practical joke the family had played on Tora-san. Soon after, Tora-san receives news that his former oyabun (yakuza boss) has taken ill and will likely not live very long. Tora-san visits his boss and decides to help him fulfill his final wish: to see his estranged illegitimate son one last time. Despite Tora-san’s best efforts, he is not able to. The boss’ son, Ishida (Masamichi Matsuyama) wants nothing to do with his father since he doesn’t think he is a good person. Thus, Tora-san’s boss dies without fulfilling his wish.

The events have a serious effect on Tora-san, who from now on wants to live an honest and hardworking life. Of course, being Tora-san, he pursues this goal in the most ridiculous manner possible and is extremely picky about the kind of “hard work” he wants to do. Above all, he needs to “sweat and get oily.” Nothing else will do. Tora-san applies to several places in his hometown of Shibamata, but due to his reputation no one will hire him. Eventually, he ends up in the next town over, Urayasu, where he gets a job in a fried tofu shop. He seems happy until the balance of his new-found life is shattered when Tora-san falls in love with the owner’s daughter, Setsuko (Aiko Nagayama), who sadly doesn’t reciprocate. Heartbroken, Tora-san concludes that the honest lifestyle is not for him, and he’s better off the way he was.

The comfort of the Tora-san series lies primarily in its remarkable stability over the years. The films share many common elements among each other.  For example, all films star Atsumi as the titular vagrant. All are written (or co-written) by Yamada, who also served as the director for all but two films in the 50-title series. Moreover, all the Tora-san films share approximately the same basic formula for their plot, the same character archetypes that associate with Tora-san, and the same cyclical resolution at the end of each movie that cleans the slate for the next one to come. These constants have become so deeply rooted that the audience invariably expects them to be there every time. One does not watch a Tora-san movie to be surprised, shocked, or have the rug pulled out under their feet. Instead, it is the familiarity and predictability of the beloved main character that drives the appeal . In other words, each entry in the Tora-san series is like a slice of everyday life, with all the good, bad, mundane, and lovely things that encompass it.

Tora-san’s Runaway appears rather early in the series (barely a year after the first film’s release), though with the main staples of the character already established. It is not the strongest in the series, but Yamada nevertheless manages to balance the drama quite well against an otherwise comedic plot. Much like the rest of the Tora-san films, Tora-san’s Runaway ends with Tora-san’s romantic disappointment that brings him back to his former self. Despite the abruptness with which the plot is wrapped up, the film does a masterful job of building up the romantic tension until the final scene where Tora-san discovers he cannot be with his “Madonna.” The emotion comes through in both the writing and the acting, demonstrating once more why the team behind and in front of the camera worked so well for nearly 50 years.

The new 4K restoration of Tora-san’s Runaway was shown at Japan Society on November 1.