A museum dedicated to items associated with the late actor Kiyoshi Atsumi, known as Tora-san from the "Otoko wa Tsurai yo" (It's tough being a man) film series, is expected to reopen as early as next spring, thanks to his devoted fans.
The Atsumi Kiyoshi Komoro Tora-san Kaikan hall had a collection of about 1,700 items including costumes, valuable photos, and props from the long-running series featuring Tora-san, one of Japan's most beloved film characters.
The museum has been closed for more than two years due to the death of its director, Seika Ide, in October 2012 and financial difficulties.
Masaki Ichii, 34, the head of a local volunteer group comprising Tora-san fans who acquired the right to use the facility for free of charge this spring, is a rickshaw driver catering to tourists in Komoro.
"Tora-san, who is good-natured, meddlesome and loves to make people laugh, gave me courage and hope," Ichii said.
The Tora-san museum opened in 1995. It was built on a city-owned plot of land adjacent to the city's famed landmark Kaikoen park with a total construction cost of about 250 million yen (about $2 million), with part of the cost covered by the city government. Ide, who had run an electric construction company in the city, served as director for the museum, which is a two-story reinforced concrete structure with a basement floor.
Ide met Atsumi in 1975 on a referral from comedian Keiroku Seki. The two clicked instantly as they were the same age. Ide became so fascinated with Atsumi that he was absent from his company for almost half a month to follow the film star as he moved from one location to another to shoot scenes.
Atsumi became close to Ide, even calling him his "dad in Komoro" and going on trips together.
Komoro served as the setting for the 40th installment in the Tora-san film series released in 1988 titled "Tora-san's Salad Day Memorial."
One day, Atsumi told Ide to bring a truck to the film studio. When Ide got there, he found a stack of cardboard boxes that contained Atsumi's certificates of achievement, trophies, photos and many other personal items.
Atsumi was concerned about Ide's only son, 55, who has cerebral palsy. He apparently told people around him that Ide's son could have a place to work if there were a museum.
Atsumi, who was battling cancer at the time, died at age 68 in August 1996, a year after the museum opened.
The facility thrived at first, attracting about 124,000 visitors in 1997. But the number of visitors began to decline after 2000. By 2012, when Ide passed away, the figure dropped to 7,600.
The operating company was disbanded in 2013, with all the exhibits being donated to the city government along with the entire building.
The museum also housed items associated with director Yoji Yamada, but they were transferred to the Yamada Yoji Museum that opened in Tokyo's Shibamata district.
There were discussions to sell the museum to a company operating outside the prefecture. But the volunteer group headed by Ichii won the right to use the facility after responding to a bid tendered by the city government.
To prepare for the reopening, group members have been making concerted efforts including launching a signature-collecting campaign, holding film screenings and hosting talks.
Kunihito Honma, 67, a former Shochiku Co. film studio employee in charge of costumes for Tora-san, is also an associate of the group. He moved to Komoro from Tokyo after quitting his work.
"The Tora-san museum is evidence of Mr. Atsumi's friendships," he said. "We've got to keep it."
The group is set to officially sign a contract with the city government before year-end, with the intention to reopen the museum next spring.
"Komoro is a place where Mr. Kiyoshi Atsumi was deeply attached to. It is a holy place for Tora-san fans along with the Shibamata district in Katsushika Ward," director Yamada said, referring to the Tokyo ward where Tora-san's home is. "I am relieved by the prospect of (the museum) resuming operations. On this occasion, I hope they would aim for the realization of a new facility where young people who don't know about Tora-san can also feel his charm."