Kiyoshi Atsumi was the most popular and best-loved comedian on the Japanese screen. To the very end, he refused to let his private life be made public. So his family concealed the star's death for four days. Only his wife, Masako, and his two children were present at his cremation.
Not even the director of his 48 comedies, Yoji Yamada, knew of his death until he had departed, as he had wished, like any ordinary person, without fuss or ceremony. But he has an enduring place in The Guinness Book of Records as the comic hero Tora-san of the world's longest-running movie series. For many years, they were turned out at the rate of two a year, but recently only one would appear in time for the New Year season. The general title of the series was Otoko wa tsurai yo ("It's Tough Being A Man"), a title which expressed perfectly the comedian's own life.
He was born in the downtown Ueno district of Tokyo. His father was a minor newspaper political columnist, and his mother a substitute teacher who took in sewing to make ends meet. Kiyoshi's real name was Tadokoro Yasuo, and when he took his stage name, his mother disapproved, saying "No decent person has two names!" They moved to another district, Itabashi, where Kiyoshi attended the Itabashi Elementary school, before entering the Sugamo Junior High school. He was a reluctant scholar and always had bad marks. When the Second World War broke out, he, like most children, had to work in a factory: in this instance making radiators for aeroplanes. He became leader of a gang of hooligans and was sometimes picked up on the streets by the kempeitai, or "thought police".
After the war, he entered the harsh world of young petty thugs around Ueno Station. Strangely enough, some of these rebels without a cause were later to hold high positions. Kiyoshi's main activity was illegal - smuggling rice from Sendai in the north to Tokyo, a widespread practice in those hungry post-war Occupation days. He sported a slick hairstyle and had some minor racketeer friends.
But his life changed for the better when he joined a small travelling theatre company in which he did odd jobs like operating the curtain, then got small walk-on parts. By June 1951, he was learning the ropes as a stand-up comic at the Million Dollar Gekijo in the working-class amusement district of Asakusa, then graduated to a famous strip-tease theatre, France- za, where many comedians appeared who later became famous. His first script was written for him by a writer who was also to become well known, Inoue Hisashi. But it was an unhealthy existence, and he developed TB. He had to have one of his lungs removed and this changed his life-style to a quieter and more reasonable pace.
He returned from the sanatorium to France-za in 1956 and was spotted by Fuji TV's talent scouts who engaged him for variety shows on the just- emerging small screen.
When I first saw him in 1959, he reminded me of popular British comedians of the old school like George Formby, Albert Burdon or Claud Dampier. Then the broadcasting company NHK contracted him for a variety show, and his television fame soared. He also performed in Fuji TV's 1962 season soap opera O-ban in which he played a cheeky country type, full of vitality, pushy but with an irresistible comic charm.
He entered the Shochiku movie company in 1963 in Yoshitaro Nomura's Haikei tenno heika sama ("Greetings, Mr Emperor") which was a big hit. After one or two other unremarkable movies, Fuji TV featured Kiyoshi in the 1968 series directed by Yoji Yamada, Otoko was tsurai yo, which this excellent director made after listening to Kiyoshi telling him his adventurous life story.
In the usual manner of television soap characters he was "killed off" by being written out of the script. This premature demise was caused by a bite from a poisonous snake. But the show had become very popular, and its star's sudden death raised a storm of protest all over Japan. Yamada realised his mistake, and in 1969 the television series became the first Tora-san film.
It was an instant success and saved not only Shochiku but the whole of the Japanese film industry from the decline into which it was slipping. Kiyoshi played the character he was to play in all 48 sequels: a lovable, footloose, kind-hearted fellow who in each episode gets into trouble with his relatives and distresses his sister, Sakura (Cheiko Baisho) with his rustic manners and inappropriate behaviour.
In each movie, there is the theme of love-sickness when Tora-san (Mister Tiger) becomes infatuated with some pretty girl - a type known as "Madonna" after the classic beauty in Natsume Soseki's comic novel Botchan. His love is always, of course, doomed to failure, and at the end of the movie, Tora-san says farewell to his hosts and sets off on another journey across Japan as a travelling salesman. There is pathos as well as comedy in all these adventures and tribulations of working-class life, acutely observed by Yamada, a graduate of the prestigious law department at Tokyo University, who some critics have accused of rather too sharp class-consciousness.
Yamada made several well-received serious films; he is an excellent craftsman, and it is as much his directorial skill as the sublime idiocy of Tora- san that make these comic movies so enchantingly watchable. I saw one last year in Paris, in a cinema full of hilarious Japanese of all ages. Now that Tora-san is no more, there will be less laughter in Japanese movie houses next New Year.
Tadokoro Yasuo (Kiyoshi Atsumi), comedian: born Tokyo 10 March 1928; married Masako Tadokoro (one son, one daughter); died Tokyo 4 August 1996.
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