Curator's Note

"When is a musical not a musical? When it has Elvis Presley in it." Rick Altman's seminal essay on film genre offers this question to illustrate the difficulty of defining the musical. It also highlights the difference between the all-singing, all-dancing Broadway adaptation and the typical Japanese musical film, which focused more on "musical moments" in which characters played by popular singers would break into song. The archetypal Hollywood musical was seen as impossibly American--even the most spectacular imitations (in this series, You Can Succeed, Too) ironize the felt disparity between Japan and the U.S. Yet Japanese cinema is saturated with popular music. In some periods it was rare for a star not to release records and sing on film--Seijun Suzuki's go-to action star Jo Shishido released a series of records in the 1960s and it was even said that only the elegant Setsuko Hara did not sing.
Although operettas (Singing Lovebirds) and backstage musicals were produced as soon as the technology was available, the films in this series are chosen from the more representative stream of popular song films that reached their peak in the 50s and 60s, forming the soundtrack of Japan's economic miracle. Influential film exporter Kashiko Kawakita once said that these were the films she wanted to show to foreigners in order to showcase contemporary Japan. Musical comedies starring teen idols such as Hibari Misora (So Young, So Bright) and star-making action films about becoming a star with Yujiro Ishihara (The Stormy Man) jump-started a youth audience in Japan that also devoured the "group sounds" films that followed the Beatles' visit in 1966. An even broader audience packed the cinemas for "salaryman" comedies starring The Crazy Cats and other TV celebrities (Irresponsible Era of Japan).
The ironic tone of that last film, satirizing even as it celebrates high economic growth, points to a striking undercurrent in Japanese musical films. The ubiquity of music and song in postwar Japanese cinema became an anti-naturalist resource for modernist filmmakers to characterize social groups (Twilight Saloon, A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs), or to tweak contemporary debates in avant-garde music by combining Buddhist chant and naniwabushi with West Side Story (Oh, Bomb!). We can hear echoes of that irony even in more recent musical films (Happiness of the Katakuris, Memories of Matsuko), in which the utopian musical numbers only accentuate the bleakness of the lives they comment on. Seeing and hearing the tradition of musical films in Japanese cinema gives us a different view of Japanese popular culture that is smart as well as silly and sometimes devastating, too. In the 20th century, American culture became global culture: Japanese filmmakers faced up to that geopolitical fact with a mix of homage and parody that also sometimes offered audiences a way of understanding their place in the world.

Michael Raine is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Western University, Canada. He has published on Japanese New Wave cinema, the transition to sound in Japan, and the theory and practice of subtitling. He is editing an anthology with Johan Nordström on Japanese sound culture of the 1930s titled The Culture of the Sound Image in Prewar Japan (Amsterdam University Press), and is finishing a manuscript titled The Cinema of High Economic Growth: New Japanese Cinemas 1955-1964. His essay on the Japanese musical film is forthcoming in The Japanese Cinema Book (BFI).

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