Tough to be a Man

When I hear the word "masculinity," I'm reminded of a film series known as Otoko wa tsurai yo, or “It’s Tough Being a Man.” The first film of the series was released in 1969 and production continued until 1995 for a grand total of 48 films in all. It was the death of leading actor Kiyoshi Atsumi that finally brought the series to its end. The plot of each film in the series follows a nearly-identical format. Kuruma Torajiro, or Tora-san, earns a living as a traveling salesman, traveling around Japan and only occasionally returning to his home in Shibata, Tokyo, where his family runs a dumpling shop named Toraya. Every now and then Tora-san shows up unexpectedly back in Shibamata, where he inevitably gets caught up in some kind of trouble that he caused before setting off on another journey in an attempt to make things right, falling in love with some woman along the way.

Tora-san is compassionate, but he has a short temper and isn’t the brightest of the bunch. Whenever he returns home, he always receives a warm welcome and enjoys time spent with his younger sister, Sakura, and his aunt and uncle who run the dumpling shop. But eventually they end up fighting over some minutia, resulting in Tora-san storming out and disappearing once again. Tora-san is far from what you would call handsome; rather, he is what might be described as “cute.” And he almost always ends up falling in love during his travels. But the women that he falls in love with never consider Tora-san to be more than a good friend, which ultimately leads to him being hurt and rushing off to his next destination.

The films were initially set during Japan’s post-war period of rapid economic growth. Lacking a proper businessman’s job, never married, and living paycheck to paycheck, Tora-san is a far cry from what would be considered “masculine” according to Japanese values during this period (assuming that such a thing exists). The women that he falls in love with also tend to be in their 30s or 40s, living alone, and just barely managing to get by. If getting married and starting a family is part of what makes one masculine or feminine then these are people who have completely missed the mark.

But at the same time, Tora-san is indeed masculine. He’s a show-off, quick to start a fight, treats women well, and likes to talk big. He’s always the first to tackle a problem, as if saying “just leave it to me.” Whenever I contemplate the idea of “masculinity,” I always end up running into a wall of “incomprehensibility.” One person’s idea of masculinity may not be the same as yours or mine. And of course it will most likely differ depending on when and where you might be. Tora-san and the women he falls in love with in the Otoko wa tsurai yo films represent a sad existence that deviates from the social norm. On the other hand, the warm and welcoming home that he returns to in Shibamata is a glowing model of the ideal household and surrounding social norms, but attempts to include Tora-san as a part of that repeatedly fail. In the end, he always sets off on another journey, almost as if he were fending off these attempts.

In the video footage shot by Drew Pettifer, when Japanese men are asked about “masculinity,” something in their expressions seems to show a sense of bewilderment. The concept of “masculinity” resists their attempts at verbalization, remaining elusive and troublesome. But at the same time, people are somehow afraid of falling even slightly outside of its boundaries. And sometimes this stands in the way of good intentions, as can be seen in the case of the Shibamata household. Perhaps our vague concept of masculinity is actually the result of defining what is not masculine and then constantly trying to rid ourselves of those attributes. And in the process of getting rid of “everything else” we end up with this intangible thing called masculinity. Take Tora-san’s younger sister Sakura’s son Mitsuo, for example. Mitsuo’s “development” as he grows up is the very embodiment of this process. Despite looking up to Tora-san, he gets a proper job, gets married, and sets out to make a respectable life for himself. In one scene, still in high school and feeling unsure about the future, Mitsuo has the following exchange with Tora-san.

MITSUO: What’s the point of life, anyway?

TORAJIRO: Well... uhh, you know… There will be times when you think: “It sure is great to be alive.” Right? Isn’t that really what it’s all about?

(Tora-san Plays Daddy)

In his answer, Tora-san describes a happiness that is simpler and more primal than the happiness defined by typical social paradigms such as marriage or employment. This happiness is different than “masculine” or “feminine” happiness – it’s a happiness that anyone can experience. Perhaps that’s why it’s harder to come upon. Having followed the path to becoming a respectable adult without deviation, I can’t help but wonder if Mitsuo ever thinks back on this answer from Tora-san. I wonder if he ever wishes he had lived a life more like that of Tora-san’s. But Mitsuo has a place firmly within the framework. Tora-san, on the other hand, has deviated from the standard splendidly, continuing to travel further and further outside of the lines to some unknown destination. All while dreaming of the day that he can quietly think to himself: “It sure is great to be alive.”





Drew Pettiferが撮影した映像のなかで、日本人男性たちは「男らしさ」について聞かれると、どこか困惑した表情を浮かべる。「男らしさ」は言語化を拒み、つかみどころがなくてやっかいだ。しかし、その規範を少しでも外れることを、ひとびとはどこか恐れている。それは時に、柴又の家のように善意として立ちはだかる。もしかしたら、私たちが男らしさとして認識しているぼんやりとした枠組みは、「男らしくなさ」を定義しそれをひたすら排除するという行為により作られるのかもしれない。「それ以外」の存在が排除されてゆくプロセスのなかで、男らしさという実体のないものが生成される。それは例えば、寅さんに憧れながらも、真っ当な職場に就職・結婚し、真っ当な人生を歩み始めるように描かれる、寅さんの妹・さくらの息子、満男の「成長」が体現しているのではないか。満男は将来へのぼんやりとした不安を抱いていた高校生の頃、寅さんにこんな質問をしている。



『男はつらいよ 寅次郎物語』より