Tora-san and the Year of the Tiger (which in Japanese, is “tora”)

January 3, 2010

A movie capable of spawning a sequel or two is a filmmaker’s dream. Occasionally, a character comes along who so captivates cinema audiences that a number of sequels follow (The Thin Man, Rocky, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter). But the all-time record holder would have to be Tora-san, an unlucky-in-love traveling salesman plying his wares throughout the towns and villages of Japan (with forays as far afield as Arizona and Vienna). In all, a staggering forty-eight Tora-san feature films were made, beginning in 1968, and ending in 1995 shortly before the death of the leading man, actor Kiyoshi Atsumi. Tora-san is well loved by Japanese of all ages; his everyman appeal is as strong today as ever, not unlike Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, in the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Prior to today, I had never even heard of Tora-san, but I got the full-immersion course, a most timely introduction at the outset of the Year of the Tiger/Tora.

It all started out innocently enough: a trio of friends gathering to visit the temples of the Seven Gods of Fortune, a New Year’s tradition for young and old alike throughout Japan. At each temple, a small offering is left, and the blessing of that particular god is thus secured. The gods are: Jyurou-jin (the god of long life); Ebisu-ten (originally the god of fishermen, he is now regarded as the god of good business); Daikoku-ten (the god of careers); Fuku-rokuju (the god of the three lucks); Benzai-ten (the goddess of knowledge, and by the way, the only female of the lot); Bisya Mon-ten (the god of making good luck and protecting from bad luck, also the god of warriors); and Hotei (the chubby-cheeked benevolent god of abundance). There are numerous places in Tokyo to seek the blessings of the gods, and each year I have visited someplace new; this year’s trek led me north of the city, to Shibamata, a suburb on the Keisei train line, well along the way to Narita Airport.

Maps of the course were available at the local train station; on the downside, they were not in English, but my fellow blessing seekers were both Japanese, so no worries on that count. At the first temple we each acquired a shikishi card, a stiff cardboard square on which the stamps of the gods would be impressed in red ink as we visited each temple. Gods one through four went without a hitch—coins in the boxes, a moment of meditation or prayer, the obligatory “I was here” photo—but then we got waylaid, sidetracked by brightly colored signs touting the adjacent Tora-san Museum. Would I like to go? Not so much, I admitted, in that I had never even heard of Tora-san. But how can that be?!! With that, my companions decided it was time for a strong dose of Japanese culture immersion, so they herded the outvoted gaijin toward the entrance. Immediately upon entering, I could scarcely help but notice that the museum is a true labor of love, and that the visitors were, to a one, charmed by the original movie sets, period relics and scores of photographs on hand. All forty-eight films are available on DVD, and with English subtitles or soundtracks, so it appears that this longtime film buff has his work cut out for him. I am starting this week with the first of the series, Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo, which translates loosely to “It’s Tough Being a Man.” I’ll let you know how it goes…

A couple of hours later, with a museum and a scrumptious Chinese lunch under our belts, we picked up where we had left off with the Seven Gods, finishing up with the cuddly Hotei, whose lengthy earlobes and rounded belly reminded my companions strongly of a certain foreigner in their midst, an observation they made merrily and repeatedly. I cannot imagine who they were referring to.

Saki at the first station (note the one raised finger)

I popped into a convenience store en route for a soft drink; found Red Bean (azuki) Flavor Pepsi, and “Vinegar and Milk”; would you have believed this if I had not photographed it?

I have made my way to station number two...

A photo op: the Mini-malist family

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain! Tora-san Museum

Tora-san and one of his four dozen leading ladies

Tora-san makes me feel downright petite!

Wait a minute; did I just see one of those statues blink?

And finally, here I am at station number seven, sharing a laugh with my good buddy Hotei, who has altogether a better sense of humor than his western counterpart, and who promises abundance in all things in the coming year. Note the seven fingers in the air, requiring me to hold my shikishi temple visitation card under my chin.

Oh, I almost forgot; one shop near the station was selling this unusual product…

…the quintessential lucky golden poop. Yours for a mere $25 for a snack-sized dollop, or up to $50-ish for a full-on multi-course dinner-sized offering. There is also a stuffed animal version of this design, but unfortunately they were sold out, so I couldn’t get a picture of it. Maybe next year…