Land of the Rising Song: At Last, a Chance to Savor the Eclectic and Essential Japanese Musical


“In America, you are yourself and others are others,” goes a refrain in Eizo Sugawa’s delirious You Can Succeed, Too (1964), showing as part of the Japan Society’s revelatory series “Japan Sings! The Japanese Musical Film.” The not-so-subtle implication in this story of a Tokyo tourism agency that gets a Western-style makeover: that in Japan, you are not yourself, and others are not others. A playful lyric, to be sure, but it also gets to the heart of the very idea of a Japanese musical. The genre there actually dates as far back as the silent era (when benshi singers would provide accompaniment, complete with onscreen lyrics), but Hollywood started to exert a more powerful influence following World War II, reflecting Japan’s broader cultural identity crisis. As Japanese film scholar Aaron Gerow has argued, many of these movies “tread the fraught but delightfully precarious tightrope between lamenting Japan’s conflicted identities and celebrating their hybrid mixture.”

Even as Japan’s film industry produced hundreds of musicals, it never really developed a set of distinctive genre tropes in the manner of American or Bollywood films. Instead it took other genres, like gangster flicks and workplace comedies, and wedded them — sometimes uneasily — with musical forms. The music itself often lacked uniformity as well: In Toshio Sugie’s immensely popular So Young, So Bright (1955), a film serialized in and sponsored by the youth culture magazine Heibon, the performances range from Broadway-style spectacle to mambo tunes to folk songs to “La Vie en Rose.” (There’s even a Turkish song briefly tossed into the mix.) The story tells of the friendship between teenage girls played by three of the country’s most popular young female singers — Chiemi Eri, Hibari Misora, and Izumi Yukimura. One is a tomboy from a wealthy modern family, one is being raised by a tradition-minded single mother, while the third is a maiko — an apprentice geisha about to be sold off to a businessman. The film itself offers a lighthearted blend of modernity and ritual: In its biggest set piece, the girls go to a theater and imagine themselves in a variety of Western-style numbers; but in the movie’s earnest climax, one of them triumphantly performs a traditional Japanese dance.

Then there’s Umetsugu Inoue’s surprisingly brutal jazz-gangster melodrama A Stormy Man (1957), in which talented but unruly drummer Yujiro Ishihara gets his big break with a popular band. He soon runs afoul of a mobbed-up romantic and professional rival and winds up sacrificing himself to save his brother, an aspiring classical composer. It starts off like a typical backstage musical, but it’s shot through with sexual frankness, shocking violence, and genuinely twisted psychodrama. If So Young, So Bright was bubbly and eclectic, this is bizarre and electric — a far cry from anything American song-and-dance movies were daring at the time.

This series also includes two fine examples of “salaryman” movies — stories featuring white-collar workers, a rapidly growing professional class in Japan’s postwar era. In Kengo Furusawa’s The Irresponsible Era of Japan (1962), an ambitious con man played by popular comic jazz singer Hitoshi Ueki fakes his way into the upper echelons of a beer company that’s under threat of takeover. For all its levity, and its encomia to the wonders of American-style upward mobility, the story is driven largely by the minutiae of corporate intrigue — stock sales, business negotiations, labor disputes.

More eye-popping — and making the East-West divide even more overt — is the aforementioned You Can Succeed, Too, in which employees at a travel agency have their lives upended when the boss’s spunky, beautiful U.S.-educated daughter Yoko (Mie Hama) arrives to help run the office. Immediately, she’s extolling American efficiency and professionalism, while dismissing extravagant and outmoded Japanese ways. Most of the musical set pieces are built around evocations of place: Yoko sings of a clockwork America; others sing of a stultifying Japan; elsewhere, another character sings of moving to the countryside and away from the city. But Yoko falls for the office dreamer (Tadao Takashima), whose signature song is a plaintive ballad about Taklamakan — a desert in China. (“A desert where I’ve never been, desert of my dreams.”) In the battle of countries and mores, the film’s ideal lies not in Japan or America, but elsewhere — in a place where none of these people have ever been.

As the Japan Society’s series suggests, these films became more distinctive as the Sixties wore on, forging new connections to the country’s cultural heritage even as they continued to blend these inspirations in fascinating new ways. In Kihachi Okamoto’s resolutely offbeat Oh, Bomb! (1964), a veteran yakuza is released from prison to discover that his gang has gone legit under a new, politically ambitious leader. Together with a bomb-building underling, he devises a catastrophic plan to assassinate the new boss and reclaim his throne. The film contains few musical numbers; rather, it’s performed and shot in a rhythmic and highly exaggerated style that recalls Noh theater, joining a Japanese form with an American-style noir narrative, all based on a Cornell Woolrich story. (Is it too late to make “Noh noir” a thing?) Meanwhile, in the great Nagisa Oshima’s claustrophobic, alienating Sing a Song of Sex (a/k/a A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs, 1967), a group of horny male students follow a young teacher and some female students to Tokyo for a university entrance exam. There they indulge in profane, traditional drinking songs while expressing a kaleidoscope of violent and sexually deviant fantasies.

So after all that, what to make of the two most recent entries in this series, Tetsuya Nakashima’s Memories of Matsuko (2006) and Takashi Miike’s notorious The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001), which may also be the strangest of them all? In Nakashima’s film, we explore a murdered woman’s wild, melodramatic life with musical numbers that often provide a sharp, surreal contrast to the abuse she suffers. In Miike’s, the hapless family of a salaryman who’s lost his job opens an ill-advised bed-and-breakfast where the guests keep dying in absurdist ways. With its Claymation and karaoke sequences, its cheap special effects and weird mix of sci-fi, slapstick, and horror, the hilariously nightmarish Katakuris is virtually unclassifiable — the outrageous result of what sometimes seems like a thousand different influences and counter-influences. Come to think of it, that probably makes it the most Japanese of all Japanese musicals.

‘Japan Sings! The Japanese Musical Film’
April 8-23, Japan Society