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What I Learned from Tora-san

Takeshi Usami
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Modern Japanese Literature and Modern Culture Studies

1. Torajiro Kuruma never takes things too far

I never gave too much thought to the significance of the character Torajiro Kuruma, or Tora-san, in the film series Otoko wa Tsurai yo (It's Tough Being a Man). I knew about him to an extent, of course--you cannot live in Japan without ever having heard of Torajiro Kuruma. However, I might have mistakenly seen him as merely the protagonist in a film made purely for entertainment. Upon a belated closer inspection, however, I could not help but recognize the significance of Tora-san in these films.

A number of past studies have dissected the hero archetype of Torajiro Kuruma. These studies have argued that Torajiro's defining characteristics are his free-spirited nature and his kind and warm-hearted personality. This may be true, but that is not all there is to this character. The essence of Torajiro Kuruma's character is his ability to establish a friendly relationship with people right away without creating a relationship that goes any deeper. He does not take things too far.

In the film series Otoko wa Tsurai yo, an uneducated drifter called Torajiro falls in love with beautiful women in his travels. The casual viewer might write these films off as rehashed stories where, even if there are scenes that hint that these romantic pursuits might turn into something real, they all end with him ultimately being rejected. It is true that Torajiro is not a man of learning. In the 40th film of the series, Otoko wa Tsurai yo: Salad Kinenbi (Tora-san's Salad-Day Memorial), there is a scene where a humorous conversation unfolds between Torajiro and some Waseda University students (although I would have preferred it if this had been set in Chuo University, the university attended by Kiyoshi Atsumi, the actor that plays the role of Torajiro), revealing his lack of education and cultural refinement. However, there is also a scene where he expresses his views to a well-educated high school teacher (in the 42nd film, Otoko wa Tsurai yo: Boku no Oji-san [Tora-san, My Uncle]), and he does not always get rejected in his romantic pursuits.

2. Torajiro Kuruma does not always get rejected

Even when it seems clear that Torajiro is just one step away from entering into a romantic relationship, he stops just short and does not pursue it any further. In the 29th film, Otoko wa Tsurai yo: Ajisai no Koi (Hearts and Flowers for Tora-san), Torajiro receives a letter from Kagari (Ayumi Ishida), who has come to Tokyo from Kyoto to see him. The letter asks him to meet her in Kamakura, but when he goes to meet her, he brings along his nephew Mitsuo as if to purposefully prevent himself from being alone with her. Torajiro, who is acting cold and distant, is then grudgingly told by Kagari that he seems like a totally different person and that the Tora-san she expected to see is much kinder, more fun, and free like a dandelion seed flying in the wind. In the 45th film, Otoko wa Tsurai yo: Torajiro no Seishun (Tora-san Makes Excuses), Torajiro tries to depart Aburatsu, leaving behind a woman called Choko (Jun Fubuki), who has been trying to make him stay. This results in Choko becoming furious with Torajiro. Many viewers might see this tendency of Torajiro to pull back from romantic situations as a sign of his thickheaded nature or his lack of confidence. However, that is not always the case. Torajiro's behavior is best described by his nephew Mitsuo Suwa (Hidetaka Yoshioka), who knew his uncle's character better than anyone else. In Otoko wa Tsurai yo: Torajiro no Seishun (Tora-san Makes Excuses), he explains as follows.

No, Uncle. Leaving was the right decision. If you stay here, it will only end in a much bigger tragedy. It will be great at first, of course. You are great at making people laugh, and you are a lot of fun to be around. You would make her very happy, but no matter how fun you might seem, you do not have much depth. In about a year or so, she will get bored with you. You know that better than anyone. That is why you decided to leave. Isn't that right, Uncle?

These lines were probably written as a comedic element in the film, but they reveal how well Mitsuo knows the true character of his uncle Torajiro.

3. No matter how hard he tries, Mitsuo cannot become like his uncle, Torajiro Kuruma

The greatest achievement of the second half of the film series Otoko wa Tsurai yo was to make Mitsuo Suwa, Torajiro Kuruma's nephew and the person who understands him best, a central character in the films. It is a well-known fact that due to Kiyoshi Atsumi's failing health in his later years, he had to appear in fewer scenes. Mitsuo's expanded role in the films may have just been a means of compensating for this, but this enabled the films to clearly convey the significance of Torajiro to the audience. While Mitsuo maintains his respect for his parents, who are more serious-minded, he sometimes feels that their demeanor is suffocating and cannot help but admire his free-spirited uncle. However, Mitsuo can never be like his uncle even though he admires the uncle because, as someone who was raised by serious-minded parents, he has a serious side to his nature. His inability to become more like his uncle leads him to admire Torajiro even more, allowing him to grow into a person who understands the value of Torajiro better than anyone else.

4. Torajiro Kuruma never forms deep personal relationships

The free-spirited behavior of Torajiro is not limited to just his love life. He has the ability to become good friends with just about anyone he meets extremely quickly, but he never builds personal relationships that go beyond that. In the 39th film, Otoko wa Tsurai yo: Torajiro Monogatari (Tora-san Plays Daddy), Torajiro embarks on a trip to take Hideyoshi, the son of a deceased old friend, to find his estranged mother. During this journey, Hideyoshi becomes completely attached to Torajiro. However, when Torajiro entrusts Hideyoshi to his mother, he firmly refuses their pleas to stay and immediately heads back to Tokyo. Turning to Hideyoshi, who is chasing after him, he tells the boy, "I'm just a friend of your good-for-nothing old man. Just forget about me and live happily with your mom." Thinking of Hideyoshi's future, Torajiro decides that he should disappear from the boy's sight and memory as quickly as possible.

In this film, there is also a scene where Torajiro praises his brother-in-law Hiroshi Suwa (Gin Maeda), who works at a printing factory, by making self-deprecating comments describing his own merchant business as not something that can be called honest work. I used to think that Tora-san was a simple man who was quick to fall in love but was always being turned down. It became clear, however, that this presumption was mistaken. It is Torajiro's own self-awareness that stops him from getting too deeply involved in the lives of people who take life seriously.

5. Recalling the words of Haruki Murakami when I think of Torajiro Kuruma

When I observe Torajiro's character, his tendency to intentionally pull away from pursuing things to avoid building deep personal relationships reminds me of something the novelist Haruki Murakami once said.

I think the reason why people suffer so much in the world today is our obsessive need for constant self-expression. I really think this is the cause of our suffering. Even though I make a living as a writer, self-expression is not something that is easy for me to do. It is like drinking saltwater in a desert. The more you drink, the thirstier you get. In spite of this--and rather than being limited to Japan, this is common to all modern civilizations around the world--the idea that self-expression is something that is indispensable for human existence is being shoved down our throats. Our education systems are built on this presupposition. First, you have to know yourself. You have to establish your own identity. You have to be cognizant of the differences between yourself and others, and you have to express what you're thinking in the most accurate, systematic, and objective way possible. I really believe this is a curse.
("Long Interview with Haruki Murakami: On Kafka on the Shore," Bungakukai, April 2003)

I am involved in the system of university education, so I talk about the kinds of things Murakami talked about in his critiques on a daily basis with my students. I use it as a way to offer advice to my students in my daily lectures when I am helping them to write their theses or look for work. However, these efforts require a measure of analysis, deep probing, and the ability to speak objectively and systematically. If the curse that Murakami mentioned is indeed a curse, then it is also the fate of modernity. The world we live in today requires us to analyze, elucidate, and clarify the things around us. This is the same in our personal relationships and even in affairs of the heart. Being silent is considered bad, because it is an act that is imprecise and unclear. That is why we are told to summon our courage, confess our love, and never fear rejection. If you get rejected, just get back up and keep moving forward. If you think about it like this, it becomes clear how many works of fiction extoll the virtue of summoning the courage to confess one's love. This courage is a part of our modern value system that spurs us on and is inescapable.

6. Learning lessons from Torajiro Kuruma

This may be true, but scenarios in which we have to choose one way or another are somewhat reminiscent of actions in a video game. Do you keep going or stop? Do you befriend this character or not? Do you fight or run? Is the answer yes or no? It is just like the way the digital world is structured based on a dichotomy of on and off or ones and zeroes. If this is how the world is, the antithesis of this digital mindset is the character Torajiro Kuruma.

Torajiro deliberately refrains from taking things too far. He pulls back and does not probe for answers. This is because he understands very well that pursuing things to their conclusion does not always lead to happiness. If you think about it in this way, it is easy to understand why the Otoko wa Tsurai yo films captured the hearts of so many people. Torajiro teaches us the importance of not seeking answers. Even if this value exemplified by Torajiro is something that cannot survive in our modern age, the discovery that it does exist, even if only in films, gives us a bit of comfort. The message that Tora-san left us is a perspective that encourages us to revisit the values and curses of the world today.

Takeshi Usami
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Modern Japanese Literature and Modern Culture Studies

TV Drama wo Gakumon suru (Academic Study of TV Drama Shows)

Professor Usami was born in Tokyo in 1958 and graduated with an undergraduate degree in Education from Tokyo Gakugei University in 1980. After completing his doctoral course at the Graduate School in the Division of Humanities at the University of Tokyo in 1990, Usami earned a PhD in Literature from Chuo University. Usami served in various posts, including Lecturer and Assistant Professor in the Department of Literature at Chuo University, before assuming his current position in 1998. He became the director of the Department of Literature in 2017. Usami has examined modern literature by figures such as Haruki Murakami from a historical perspective and positioned it in the history of novels written after the Meiji Period. In recent years, he has been leading efforts to conduct comprehensive studies of fiction that cover not only literature but also film, theater, and television dramas, with a particular emphasis on TV drama shows. His primary publications include Shosetsu Hyogen toshite no Kindai (Modernity as Fictional Expression) (Ohfu), Murakami Haruki to 1980 Nendai (Haruki Murakami and the Eighties), Murakami Haruki to 1990 Nendai (Haruki Murakami and the Nineties), Murakami Haruki to Niju Isseiki (Haruki Murakami and the 21st Century) (joint editorship, Ohfu), and Terebi Drama wo Gakumon suru (Academic Study of TV Drama Shows) (Chuo University Press). Website: Faculty Office of Takeshi Usami, Chuo Universitynew window