Lady Maiko (舞妓はレディ, Masayuki Suo, 2014)

lady-maikoWhen Japan does musicals, even Hollywood style musicals, it tends to go for the backstage variety or a kind of hybrid form in which the idol/singing star protagonist gets a few snazzy numbers which somehow blur into the real world. Masayuki Suo’s previous big hit, Shall We Dance, took its title from the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein song featured in the King and I but it’s Lerner and Loewe he turns to for an American style song and dance fiesta relocating My Fair Lady to the world of Kyoto geisha, Lady Maiko (舞妓はレディ, Maiko wa Lady) . My Fair Lady was itself inspired by Shaw’s Pygmalion though replaces much of its class conscious, feminist questioning with genial romance. Suo’s take leans the same way but suffers somewhat in the inefficacy of its half hearted love story seeing as its heroine is only 15 years old.

Country bumpkin Haruko (Mone Kamishiraishi) arrives in the elegant Kyoto geisha quarters with only one hope – to become a maiko! However, despite the scarcity of young girls wanting to train, Haruko’s hopes are dashed by the head geisha who finds it impossible to understand anything she’s saying thanks to her extraordinarily rare accent which is an odd mix of north and south country dialects. Luckily for her, a linguistics professor who has an unhealthy obsession with rare dialectical forms overhears her speech patterns and is instantly fascinated. Striking up a bet with another tea house patron, Kyono (Hiroki Hasegawa) takes on the challenge of training Haruko to master the elegant Kyoto geisha accent in just six months.

The teahouses and the culture which goes with them are a part of the old world just barely hanging on in the bright new modern era. Haruko first became infatuated with all things maiko thanks to an online blog kept by the teahouse’s only current star, Momoko (Tomoko Tabata) – the daughter of the proprietor still only a maiko at age thirty precisely because of the lack of candidates to succeed her. Despite this intrusion of the modern, the way of the geisha remains essentially the same as it has for centuries with all of the unfairness and exploitation it entails. Hence, most of the women working in the teahouses are part-timers brought in for big events with only rudimentary training and even those who have spent a significant amount of time learning their craft lament that they don’t get paid a real salary and even their kimono and accessories technically belong to the teahouse.

Despite being on the fringes of the sex trade, as the professor’s assistant takes care to warn Haruko, there’s still something glamorous about the the arcane teahouse world bound up in ancient traditions and complicated rituals of elegance. Haruko faces a steep learning curve as a clumsy country girl who doesn’t even know how to sit “seiza” without her legs going numb. Learning to speak like a Kyoto native may be the least of her worries seeing as she has to learn how to dress in kimono, play a taiko drum and shamisen, and perform the traditional dances to perfection.

This is a musical after all and so the maiko dance routines eventually give way to more conventional choreography and large scale broadway numbers. The title song is particularly catchy and resurfaces at several points though the score as a whole is cheerful and inventive, incorporating a classic broadway sound with modern twist fused with the traditional music of the teahouse. Naoto Takenaka makes a typically creepy appearance displaying a fine voice for a comic number dedicated to the art of being a male maid to a geisha house but the big set piece is reserved for a comic take on the “Rain in Spain” in which the linguistics professor oddly wonders where all the water goes when it’s “pissing it down in Kyoto”. Unfortunately much of this revolves around linguistic jokes which are impossible to translate though the scene as a whole does its job well enough in introducing us to Haruko’s travails in the world of elocution. Other routines featuring the backstories of some of the minor characters also have a pleasantly retro quality inspired by period cinema complete with painted backdrops and old fashioned studio bound cinematography.

Though charming enough, Haruko’s progress is perhaps too conventional to move Lady Maiko far beyond the realms of cheerful fluff. Though Suo wisely keeps the romance to a minimum, Haruko’s growing feelings for the professor as well as a possible connection with his assistant are a little uncomfortable given her youth and the age differences involved even if the professor remains completely unaware. Unlike the source material Haruko’s passage is otherwise presented without complication (save for brief forays into the darkside of the geisha trade) as the country girl makes good, achieving her goals through hard work, perseverance, and the support of the community. In the end it’s all just far too nice, but then that’s not such a bad problem to have and there are enough pretty dance routines and warmhearted comedy to charm even the most jaded of viewers.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

With Song in Her Heart (希望の乙女, Yasushi Sasaki, 1958)

song in her heartAnother vehicle for post-war singing star Hibari Misora, With a Song in her Heart (希望の乙女, Kibo no Otome) was created in celebration of the tenth anniversary of her showbiz debut. As such, it has a much higher song to drama ratio than some of her other efforts and mixes fantasy production numbers with band scenes as Hibari takes centre stage playing a young woman from the country who comes to the city in the hopes of becoming a singing star.

After beginning with a rural, almost cowboy-style number in which Hibari appears as the well dressed lady of the manor, Sayuri, riding her horse across the wide pastureland, the action quickly moves to the city when Sayuri’s mentor finally convinces her uncle that her future lies in showbiz and not an early marriage as he had envisioned. However, once she gets there she finds her potential tutor extremely unwilling to fulfil his promise to take her on. After winning him over, she quickly makes friends with the locals who also want the singing teacher to become the leader of a band they’ve formed in the hopes of raising some money to build a proper children’s playground to stop them playing in dirty ditch land nearby which is a well known health hazard. Soon enough the band takes off but there’s more trouble ahead for Hibari and co. as they are betrayed by those closest to them.

Working as a celebration of Hibari’s career so far With a Song on Her Heart is filled with excuses for Hibari to sing both as a music student and band vocalist as well as fantasy production numbers some of which are even bigger on dance than on song. The plot is quite simple but there is a lot of it, in contrast to other films of this kind, as Hibari sets about healing the grief stricken heart of her bandleader and fulfilling the hopes of the ordinary people turned musicians through the power of song. The romance element is a light one and not the focus of the film but bears mentioning as Hibari’s love interest is played by Ken Takakura – the archetypical star of the yakuza movie who was to marry fellow singing sensation (and frequent Hibari Misora co-star) Chiemi Eri the following year.

Despite its nature as a celebratory project, With a Song in Her Heart doesn’t quite meet the high production standards of other Misora starring films. Shot in colour and in 2.35:1, the majority of the film is studio bound (often very obviously so) with simple sets and a straightforward directing style. Nevertheless, even if it fails to impress on a technical level, With a Song in Her Heart knows what it’s about and so it makes sure to fill its relatively short duration with as many songs as possible, light romance and a cheerful atmosphere of people coming together to try and solve a social problem through spreading love and joy in the form of music. The musical styles are unusually varied embracing Hibari Misora’s regular ballads as well as mixing in world influences from mariachi to african drums with a strong big band jazz undercurrent.The overall feeling is one of goodnatured wholesomeness and even if low on impact With a Song on Her Heart is a decent showcase for Hibari Misora’s talents as she celebrates her tenth year in the business at the age of only 21.


 

Utae! Seishun Harikiri Musume (歌え!青春 はりきり娘, Toshio Sugie, 1955)

vlcsnap-2016-07-04-00h41m46s630Hibari Misora was one of the leading lights of the post-war entertainment world. Largely active as a chart topping ballad singer, she also made frequent forays into the movies notably starring with fellow musical stars Izumi Yukimura and Chiemi Eri in the Sannin Musume series. This solo effort from 1955 is directed by the Sannin Musume director Toshio Sugie and follows a similar approach with the 18 year old Hibari starring as a teenage girl who looks really like Hibari Misora (but unfortunately cannot sing).

Hibari is playing a teenager here but she’s left school and is working as a bus conductoress. Bright and cheerful in her work, she takes some ribbing from the other employees because of her resemblance to the singing star (she has a large beauty mark drawn on her right cheek to make sure we know she’s not the “real” Hibari) and is a little embarrassed when they ask her to sing something because unlike her doppelganger, she’s tone deaf. Hibari lives at home with her mother and younger brother who’s still in school but their father seems to have left the household and there’s a degree of discord between the couple. Hibari tries to get her parents back together so they can live as a family whilst also maintaining her bus job, beginning a tentative romance with a former passenger, and even getting a few singing lessons from the real Hibari Misora herself!

Unlike the Sannin Musume movies, Harikiri Musume is shot in regular black and white though has pretty good production values for the time with some location shooting and outdoor scenes. Hibari is only 18 here but she’s already working at the bus company which seems like a pretty good gig all things considered (though her money is going to pay for her brother’s school fees, such is life). Her biggest problems are her no good father and her singing star doppleganger which continues to cause her embarrassment.

Harikiri Musume is a pop star vehicle but oddly Hibari doesn’t get to perform that much. Early on she laments not being able to sing as she listens to one of her bus company colleagues singing the song Rendezvous (also featured in one of the Sannin Musume movies) which is then followed by a more operatic track from a male colleague (of course, these two end up becoming a couple, united in their musical talents). She watches “herself”  on TV and later mimes to a recording of the famous Hibari at home but the main subplot of the film takes hold once the two Hibaris meet in a neat cinematic doubling trick. Famous Hibari teaches ordinary Hibari how to sing properly using Misora’s famous song Ringo Oiwake. She then turns up in the finale at the wedding celebration of two employees with a new song just for the bus company as a special gift.

As well as Rendezvous, there are even a few callbacks to Jankenbon which also appears in So Young, So Bright which was released the same year. Hibari is mostly acting with herself here and it’s altogether a more modest affair than the Sannin Musume pictures with no real production numbers or complicated staging but somehow all the more charming for it. In keeping with other similarly themed movies, Hibari has the disrupted family subplot and a very slight romance which never really gets started until near the end but the film cleverly avoids any kind of heaviness in favour of a light and breezy youthful tone. First rate fluff, but nevertheless an interesting look at the “ordinary” people of movie land in the mid fifties and an entertaining musical comedy in its own right.


No trailer but here’s a clip of Hibari Misora singing Ringo no Oiwake almost 25 years later:

Sannin Yoreba (三人よれば, Toshio Sugie, 1964)

vlcsnap-2016-06-02-01h37m01s384Hibari, Chiemi and Izumi reunite in 1964 for another tale of musical comedy and romantic turmoil in Sannin Yoreba (三人よれば). Beginning as teenagers in So Young, So Bright and Romantic Daughters before progressing to the beginning of their adult lives in On Wings of Love, the girls are all grown up now so the plot of Sannin Yoreba centres around the eternal conflict in the youth of every young woman in ‘60s Japanese cinema – marriage!

At the beginning of the film the three girls are intrigued and excited to receive a call from their old high school teacher who has recently retired. Meeting up to go visit her, the girls relive some old memories with the help of a few repurposed scenes from So Young, So Bright spliced in plus a few additional bits so that it looks like Izumi was also a classmate with them (in the movie she played an apprentice geisha Chiemi and Hibari met in Kyoto) as well as replacing the actress who played the teacher with the woman we’re about to meet. The trio even sing the title song to the first film, Janken Musume, as they drive over to their teacher’s house.

However, once they get there the nostalgic mood begins to dissipate as they realise their teacher has ulterior motives for inviting them. It seems, now that she’s retired, she’s opened a dating agency and wants to introduce our still single ladies to a few “eligible bachelors”. Horrified, the girls each quickly claim to have serious boyfriends already even though Hibari is the only one actually in a relationship. The teacher seems satisfied but invites them all back beaus in tow to give her final verdict. Thus begins the complicated road to true love for our musically inclined heroines.

It’s been seven years since the last Sannin Musume movie and truth to tell things have moved on the meantime leaving the Hollywood inspired musical glamour looking a little old fashioned. Much of Sannin Yoreba is a nostalgia fest despite the fact that it hasn’t really been all that long. Harking back to the first film by singing the title song and reusing the high school era footage seems primed to pull the similarly aged ladies of the audience back to screens across the country.

Sannin Yoreba has the fewest musical sequences and steers clear of large scale production numbers in favour of smaller solo showcases for the leading ladies. There’s more of a blur here into what are really fantasy sequences again taking place as the girls daydream or worry about various things – Chiemi at her place of work (in the production booth of a TV studio), Izumi in her salon, and Hibari at a bar after having a serious argument with her fiancee (once again played by Akira Takarada). That said, the girls end up at a theatre again as they did in the first two movies where they watch themselves perform a tripartite musical set piece which splits off into individual numbers for each one of them. A kind of Chaplin meets Marx Brothers meets Easter Parade theme, the girls dress up as tramps wandering through Times Square where they spot adverts for various shows which inspire their routines including Madame Butterfly where Chiemi plays both the captain and the geisha, and a bullfighting bolero number with Hibari giving it her full on Zorro.

Once again its an elegantly put together fluff fest intended to showcase the entertaining personalities of the three leading ladies who are now some of the biggest performing stars in post-war Japan. As usual the girls have great chemistry together and make a convincing group of lifelong friends whose relationship transcends that of any potential romance on offer. The movie ends with a wedding and another musical finale which incorporates three all three singers so, as expected, everything works out OK in the end which is mostly what people what from a cosy musical comedy starring three giants of the entertainment world. It may be a little sluggish in places and lacks the absurd comedic touch of the earlier movies, but Sannin Yoreba is a welcome return for the idol supergroup even if this kind of movie was evidently on its way out by the mid 1960s.


This is the last of the Sannin Musume movies  😦

Nothing from the film but here’s a video of the three girls some years later singing one of the songs which crops up throughout the movies:

On Wings of Love (大当り三色娘, Toshio Sugie, 1957)

vlcsnap-2016-06-01-01h48m32s675The Sannin Musume girls are growing up by the time we reach 1957’s On Wings of Love (大当り三色娘, Ooatari Sanshoku Musume). In fact, they each turned 20 this year (which is the age you legally become an adult in Japan), so it’s out with the school girl stuff and in with more grown up concerns, or more specifically marriage. Wings of Love is the third film to star the three Japanese singing stars Hibari Misora, Chiemi Eri, and Izumi Yukimura who come together to form the early idol combo supergroup Sannin Musume. Once again modelled on the classic Hollywood musical, On Wings of Love is the very first Tohoscope film giving the girls even more screen to fill with their by now familiar cute and colourful antics.

On Wings of Love does not have very much going for it in terms of plot (even compared to previous So Young, So Bright and Romantic Daughters). This time the three girls each work as maids in swanky households and have their eyes on the same guy who they think looks like James Dean (again played by Godzilla heartthrob Akira Takarada). Luckily, another two guys pop-up from somewhere so no one gets left on the shelf at the end when the completely non serious romantic difficulties work themselves out in time for the color coded waterskiing finale.

Like the other films in the series, On Wings of Love is not an integrated musical but one which is punctuated by musical numbers either given a real world context or portrayed as a fantasy sequence. In the previous two films the girls all went to the theatre and ended up watching themselves perform in one way or another, but this time the production number excuse is either a nap or a daydream whilst out on the river on a sunny day. Awkwardly, they each fantasise about Akira Takarada. Hibari goes all Madame Butterfly in an elegant sailor themed number, whereas Chiemi’s is all forlorn love with a melancholic, gothic ballad inspired by On London Bridge, but Izumi breaks all protocol here with a riotous cover of Bee-Bop-a-Lula which is sung entirely in English and becomes a high octane dance number (including the less successful involvement of Takarada).

There are fewer musical numbers included in On Wings of Love than in either of the other two movies though there are two trio sequences including the longer opening which sees the girls again color coded and drying dishes together as well as the finale which features the girls waterskiing while their boyfriends drive the boats. Each of the girls gets two numbers each, one solo and one production plus the trio stuff though interestingly there is a more “integrated” love song towards the end and Chiemi’s early song as she walks into town isn’t quite a fantasy sequence either.

Somehow, On Wings of Love isn’t quite as charming as either of the other movies in the series despite the kitch appeal of the opening number. The girls don’t actually spend much time together and the tone is a little rougher than the cutesy approach that had previously dominated with fewer humorous episodes to boot. That isn’t to say the film isn’t successful, but it doesn’t have the same kind of comforting fluffiness that dominated the previous instalments. The switch to Tohoscope gives series director Sugie a different canvas to play with though the most obvious change he makes is a split screen sequence to cover a telephone call. This time the colours appear a little muted too (though this may be down to the quality of the DVD which doesn’t seem as high as the transfers of either So Young, So Bright or Romantic Daughters which are both excellent) limiting the effect of the full on sugar rush the film seems to be aiming for. Nevertheless ,even if it doesn’t live up to the promise of either So Young, So Bright or Romantic Daughters, On Wings of Love is another suitably entertaining outing for the Sannin Musume girls only one a little less filled with laughter and song.


Hibari Misora’s Madame Butterfly inspired routine featuring her song Nagasaki no Cho Cho-san:

Also Izumi Yukimura’s quite wonderful Bee-Bop-A-Lula in its release version:

Romantic Daughters (ロマンス娘, Toshio Sugie, 1956)

vlcsnap-2016-05-30-23h55m41s358Romantic Daughters (ロマンス娘, Romance Musume) is the second big screen outing for the singing star combo known as “sannin musume”. A year on from So Young, So Bright, Hibari Misora, Chiemi Eri, and Izumi Yukimura reunite on screen once again playing three ordinary teenagers with a love of singing and being cheerful through adversity. This time the main thrust of the narrative is the girls’ friendship with a wealthy boy and his grumpy grandpa who takes a liking to them.

Michiru, Rumiko, and Eriko are three ordinary teenage girls in contemporary ‘50s Japan. Very close friends, they even have part time jobs working together at a local department store. One day Michiru decides to return some change a customer forgot to take with him directly to his home and the three girls are rewarded for their extremely high commitment to customer service by getting their pictures in the paper! This brings them to the attention of their friend Kubota’s grandfather who is very impressed with their honesty. He invites them round to his mansion where they enjoy a mini Western style feast and play a few songs on the piano. Shortly after, a man in a bow tie turns up and says he’s managed to find grandpa’s long lost daughter only she has unfortunately passed away leaving a little girl, Yukiko, with no one to look after her. Grandpa isn’t quite convinced by this story, but begins spending time with the sad little girl to try and see if she really could be his granddaughter.

Just like So Young, So Bright, Romantic Daughters is not an integrated musical but an ironic comedy with frequent musical interludes. There are plenty of excuses found for the girls to suddenly start singing, whether it’s that they’re involved in a local festival, entertaining an old man, or trying to cheer up a sullen little girl. Also like the first film, the girls (and Kubota) attend a theatrical performance but this time they do actually see “themselves” – that is Michiru, Rumiko, and Eriko head off to see Izumi, Hibari, and Chiemi. They even sit underneath a large poster of their real life counterparts in the lobby completely confusing one of their admirers who can’t believe his luck! Once again they each get a production number with Izumi getting the “sexy” routine this time which is a little bit On the Town. Chiemi gets an elegant set piece with a ball gown and a fairytale palace behind her, but Hibari’s number is just kind of nuts as she cross dresses to play a male samurai who ends up “saving” Michiru from the attentions of Chiemi who is also playing a guy complete with bald cap and top knot.

Kubota seems most interested in Rumiko and the other two girls have some kind of relationship with two other guys who work at an amusement park but are completely forgotten about for most of the film until they’re needed to fill the other two rear seats for the finale which is a trio number featuring the three girls riding bicycles with the guys on the back. At one point the girls and Kubota decide to take the little girl to the amusement park to try and cheer her up, which they eventually do by venturing into a haunted house (actually quite scary) where Chiemi decides to break protocol by using some of the judo moves she was seen practicing earlier on a couple of the ghosts and ghouls to be found in the psychedelic horror show.

Once again what’s on offer is cute and fluffy fun with some silly comedy and impressively choreographed production numbers thrown in. Like the first film there are also a number of recurring subplots of single mothers, long lost fathers, and this time also the problem of the little girl who may or may not be the granddaughter but by the time they start to reach a conclusion it may be too late to undo all the bonding that’s begin to occur in any case. Cinematic soul food, Romantic Daughters makes full use of its vibrant Eastman colours for a Hollywood inspired elegant musical feast that is undoubtedly a lot of empty calories but nevertheless extremely satisfying.


Can’t find any clips from the film but here is the English language US pop track sung by Izumi Yukimura in the movie in its release version:

So Young, So Bright (AKA Janken Musume, ジャンケン娘, Toshio Sugie, 1955)

Janken MusumePop stars invading the cinematic realm either for reasons of commerce, vanity, or just simple ambition is hardly a new phenomenon and even continues today with the biggest singers of the era getting to play their own track over the closing credits of the latest tentpole feature. This is even more popular in Japan where idol culture dominates the entertainment world and boy bands boys are often top of the list for any going blockbuster (wisely or otherwise). Cycling back to 1955 when the phenomenon was at its heyday all over the world, So Young, So Bright (ジャンケン娘, Janken Musume) is the first of four so called “three girl” (Sannin Musume) musicals which united the three biggest female singers of the post-war era: Hibari Misora, Chiemi Eri, and Izumi Yukimura for a music infused comedy caper.

As far as plot goes, it’s actually very simple and yet quite complicated at the same time as highschoolers Yumi (Chiemi Eri) and Ruri (Hibari Misora) end up on a school trip to Kyoto where they fall in a river because they’re laughing so much at their classmates’ excitement at spotting someone filming a jidaigeki on the riverbank (neat cameo from director Toshio Sugie). Breaking off from their group, they take their uniforms off to dry only to be disturbed by a young man who tries to take photographs of them at which point they pretend to be washing some clothes in the river. Later they head to an inn which is owned by a friend of Ruri’s mother (who is also an inn owner and former geisha) where they befriend an apprentice geisha, Piyo (Izumi Yukimura).

Piyo then turns up in Tokyo in a bit of a state as it turns out she will shortly be sold into prostitution! She’s fallen in love with someone from the city who she thinks could save her if only she can find him so the girls set out to help her, except the guy’s name is Saito which is the Smith of Japan. During all of this, Ruri also has a subplot about her long lost father who will shortly be moving abroad and apparently wants to actually meet her, opening lots of old wounds.

So Young, So Bright is not a musical in the classical sense, it’s not integrated, but allows ample space for its singing stars to do their thing. Yumi just loves to sing so she randomly starts singing songs she’s heard everywhere, Piyo sings as a geisha and Ruri is rehearsing for some kind of kabuki style performance she gives alone on stage at the climax of the film.

That aside, the main musical sequence comes towards the end where the three girls go to the theatre together and strangely end up seeing “themselves” performing on stage. It’s a neat kind of fantasy sequence in which each of the girls indulges in a little bit of daydreaming as they imagine themselves as stage stars with Piyo being given the cutest, most MGM style number which is then followed by a number from Yumi entitled “Africa” which is very much of its time…and then you get the elegant number from Ruri which is mostly the English version of La Vie en Rose. They also get a trio number to close the film which takes place entirely on a rollercoaster but celebrates each of their slightly different singing styles.

So Young, So Bright is not intended to be anything other than irrepressibly cheerful fluff (despite containing a subplot about possible forced prostitution), but succeeds in being exactly that. An early colour film from Japan it certainly makes fantastic use of its technicolour swirl to give Hollywood a run for its money in the sophistication of happiness stakes. Hollywood musicals are quite clearly the biggest influence though perhaps more those from the pre-war era even down to the only large scale dance sequence which has a distinct Busby Berkley vibe (even it only lasts twenty seconds or so). The rest of the film is actually quite light on dance but makes sure to showcase the singing talents of each of its leading ladies equally. Strangely innocent, even if darkness lurks around the edges with the betrayed geisha and possible prostitution subplots, So Young, So Bright lives up to its name as a completely charming musical comedy that is perfectly primed to banish even the bluest of blues far into the distance.


These movies are so much fun! No subtitles but here are some clips of the various musical numbers:

Izumi Yukimura’s Cha Cha number:

Chiemi Eri’s Africa number (not very PC by modern standards, just a warning)

Hibari Misora’s take on the English language version of La Vie en Rose

And the finale: