There’s a very exciting season of films that will be played at the Japan Society New York building throughout April. This season is called:
10 films will be screened from April 08th to the 23rd and audiences will get to experience films from the golden age of the “popular song film” to some more recent entries. That means titles from the ‘50s and ‘60s where Japanese cinema had Hollywood style musicals all the way through to the weird genre-mashup that is The Happiness of the Katakuris, one of Takashi Miike’s most popular films.
It looks like it’s going to show how Japanese cinema utilised Hollywood musical styles and American musical genres, marrying them up with elements found in the bedrock of Japanese culture to create unique films– Buddhist chanting, pop-idols battling to save a geisha from businessmen, samurai and courtesans singing jazz songs. Romances, commercialism, parodies, party-times and politics are all on screen and there are interesting social themes at play in these musicals with the relationship between Japan and the US, globalisation, the economic boom and wish fulfilment as well as an interesting contrast between the glitz and glamour and the down and dirty realities of the characters in some of the films.
The mission of the film season is to help audiences to uncover the little-known world of Japanese musical films and, by extension, Japan at the time. The mission of the films when they were first released was to help audiences understand the massive changes in Japan. To help there are parties and talks. It sounds so exciting!
The trailer for the season should give you a taste of what’s on offer but here’s a bit more from me which I got from the season’s website and IMDB. The trailers and clips won’t be a patch on what audiences will see since they will be watching the musical on the big screen and the films are all on 35mm:
君も出世ができる 「Kimi mo shusse ga dekiru 」
Running Time: 100 mins.
Release Date: May 30th, 1964
Director: Eizo Sugawa
Writer: Eizo Sugawa, Toshiro Ide (Screenplay),
Starring: Frankie Sakai, Mie Hama, Ichiro Arishima, Arihiro Fujimura, Jerry Ito, Mie Nakao,
Synopsis: Described as “the closest Japanese cinema ever came to the full-blown Broadway style musical, with singing and dancing on the streets of Tokyo”, the film is a comic version of the “industrial competition” genre: and it involves two tourism companies competing for foreign clients in the run up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Expect businessmen to burst into song at random.
ジャンケン娘 「Janken Musume 」
Running Time: 92 mins.
Release Date: November 01st, 1955
Director: Toshio Sugie
Starring: Hibari Misora, Chiemi Eri, Izumi Yukimura, Shinji Yamada, Yoshie Minami, Sadako Sawamura,
Synopsis: Hibari Misora, Chiemi Eri, and Izumi Yukimura were three of the most popular young singers in 1950s Japan and here they take the lead in a film about three unlikely high school friends who try to rescue apprentice geisha Izumi from the clutches of a predatory businessman. It was one of the most popular films made in 1955, combining American melodies with Japanese lyrics. According to the Japan Society site it helped establish the “three girl” film format as well as the “made-in-Japan teenage pops” that eventually became the J-Pop music we know today.
Oh, Bomb! (ああ爆弾, Dir: Kihachi Okamoto, 95 mins.) is a musical comedy all about an old-school yakuza replaced by his former underling and meeting all sorts of bizarre characters including a henchman who loves dynamite. Twilight Saloon (黄昏酒場, Dir: Tomu Uchida, 93 mins.) is from the director Tomu Uchida who was in China during World War II. His experiences inform the film where the main protag, an alcoholic painter who quit painting when he realized his wartime work was propaganda, finds himself in the movie industry where he winds up working in a cheap saloon and he encounters all sorts of people but views them with the eyes of an outsider thanks to his experiences as a war returnee. The Stormy Man (嵐を呼ぶ男, Dir: Umetsugu Inoue, 101 mins.) stars Yujiro Ishihara, the biggest male film and singing star in post-war Japan. He plays a rough drummer given his big break by female talent manager Mie Kitahara and gets caught up in love triangles.
鴛鴦歌合戦 「Oshidori Utagassen」
Running Time: 69 mins.
Release Date: March 26th, 2016
Director: Masahiro Makino
Writer: Koji Edogawa (Screenplay),
Starring: Chiezo Kataoka, Ryosuke Kagawa, Takashi Shimura, Tomiko Hattori, Haruyo Ichikawa
Synopsis: Jazz singers Dick Mine and Tomiko Hattori star alongside actors Haruyo Ichikawa, Chiezo Kataoka and Takashi Shimura (one of Kurosawa’s favourite leading men) in a film about a love quadrangle between a masterless samurai and three eligible suitors was marketed with the tagline “a rare operetta in which jazz bursts into the period film.”
Irresponsible Era of Japan (ニッポン無責任時代 , Dir: Kengo Furusawa, 86 mins.) stars singing comedian Hitoshi Ueki as a salaryman who goofs off at work and yet somehow always comes out ahead. He gets to go on irresponsible misadventures while singing well-known Japanese folk-inflected songs while dancing something like the twist.
A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs (aka Sing a Song of Sex) (日本春歌考, Dir: Nagisa Oshima, 103 mins.) is a political film from Nagisa Oshima where a group of students from the countryside are free to roam Tokyo and Oshima uses the musical genre to explore familiar themes for him, namely gender, wealth, and ethnicity as well as social pressures.
Memories of Matsuko (嫌われ松子の一生, Dir: Tetsuya Nakashima, 130 mins.) should be familiar to J-film fans since it’s contemporary and comes from world famous director Tetsuya Nakashima It stars Miki Nakatani as the titular Matsuko, a woman found beaten to death in her apartment. It seems like a life wasted and tragically lost since she is estranged from her family and seems to have accomplished nothing but when her nephew explores her personal effects he finds an extraordinary life of emotional highs and lows. The dark story is given musical interludes.
We’ll end on a subversive high note:
The Happiness of the Katakuris
カタクリ家の幸福 「Katakuri-ke no Kofuku」
Running Time: 113 mins.
Release Date: February 23rd, 2002
Director: Takashi Miike
Writer: Kikumi Yamagishi (Screenplay),
Starring: Kenji Sawada, Keiko Matsuzaka, Shinji Takeda, Naomi Nishida, Kiyoshiro Imawano,
Synopsis: The Happiness of the Katakuris is based on the Korean film The Quiet Family and centres on a family fleeing the city and misfortune to the country to open a B&B. Unfortunately the only guests who visit wind up committing suicide so in order to save their situation they begin to bury the bodies… The film turns into a comedy-horror-musical to, as the website says, “explore the state of the Japanese family after the collapse of the economic boom that underpinned the popular song film.”
And that’s about it. Japan Sings! Looks to be an excellent Japanese cinema is a vast unexplored continent that is only slowly coming to light thanks to brave cinephiles and committed film festivals going to and arranging events like this.