It seems amazing to many people that this series of movies went on to number 48 over 25 years. But each film is strangely compelling and quite different, even though the basic format is the same.
Tora-san is a deeply flawed but intensely 'real' individual: lazy, vain, semi-literate, petulant, mendacious, funny, child-like, generous, sentimental. A real pain for everyone around him (most of all his long-suffering family), but nevertheless likable for all that. He is no one-dimensional character -- Atsumi's acting is breathtakingly larger than life. A lot of the credit must be due to the directorial skills of Yamada, who coaxes fine natural performances from all his actors.
There are a lot of underlying themes in the Tora-san films. Class certainly is one. Shibamata, Tora-san's hometown, is lower working class. Tora-san himself is 'yakuza-poi' -- not one of the notorious gangsters one thinks of as 'yakuza', but a small-time drifter and seller of cheap books and trashy objects -- he tries his hand at various other jobs (like farming in Hokkaido), but always fails and returns to his itinerant way of life. His speech patterns and pugnacious character (not to mention his dress) signify his status immediately to any Japanese. Much of the comic tension in these films derives from the discomfort Tora's earthy presence provokes when among those of finer social pretensions.
The other more overt theme is Tora's endless disappointment in love. Although women find him a charming comedian, none can conceive of him as a serious love interest. Tora's fascination with women is curiously asexual -- there is never any leering or lustful aspect to it. Rather, he develops a sudden dog-like attachment to pretty young women he encounters by chance, his family---and the audience---knowing it is doomed from the start.
It is indeed a shame more of these films are not available in English, but on the other hand, a good translation of the very idiomatic Japanese would be difficult to achieve.
*UPDATE*: As of August 2008, Shochiku has released a new edition of the Tora-san films on DVD, WITH English SUBTITLES!
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