This spring Japan Society celebrates the astonishing yet little-known world of Japanese musical films. Filled with rarely screened genre treasures, most unavailable on DVD, Japan Sings! The Japanese Musical Film focuses on the golden age of Japan's "popular song film" starring teen idols and TV stars from the 50s and 60s. The series also reaches back to prewar singing samurai and forward to 21st century genre mashups, presenting 10 songful cinema gems in total, all presented in glorious 35mm. Guest curated by Michael Raine, Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Western University, Canada, Japan Sings! takes place April 8-23 at Japan Society.
"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," says Raine in his curatorial notes. "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."
This series features some of Japan's biggest pop culture icons, including Hibari Misora, Yujiro Ishihara, Kenji Sawada and Kiyoshiro Imawano, as well as several iconic directors such as Nagisa Oshima and Kihachi Okamoto and contemporary masters like Takashi Miike and Tetsuya Nakashima. Where Hollywood musicals were all-singing, all-dancing Broadway adaptations, the typical Japanese musical film presented 'musical moments' – standalone segments in which characters played by popular singers of the area broke into song.
Raine notes, "Musical performances in these films incorporate Japanese musical tradition as well as the utopian atmosphere of the Hollywood musical to create a rich commentary on the intimate yet imbalanced relation between Japan and the USA… 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."
Japan Sings! launches April 8th with Eizo Sugawa's tour de force You Can Succeed, Too – "the closest Japanese cinema ever got to a full-blown Broadway style musical," according to Raine, featuring full song-and-dance numbers with dozens of singing salarymen. The screening will be followed by the Opening Night Party.
One of Japan's most popular films of the 50s, Toshio Sugie's So Young, So Bright (April 9), stars Hibari Misora, Chiemi Eri and Izumi Yukimura, and is credited with creating the teen idol "three girl" film format and igniting the made-in-Japan teen music genre that has evolved into today's global J-Pop craze.
Major postwar musical maker Umetsugu Inoue made the star-making action melodrama The Stormy Man (April 9) with the genre's biggest star Yujiro Ishihara. The criminally underseen director Tomu Uchida's masterpiece Twilight Saloon (April 15) features a mélange of musical styles mixing into powerful allegory for life and society in postwar Japan. New wave director Kihachi Okamoto's experimental yakuza musical mash-up Oh, Bomb! (April 16) fuses jazz with naniwabushi (sentimental narrative songs from the early 1900s), Buddhist chant and some oblique homage to West Side Story – one of the auteur’s most overlooked, unique films. Kengo Furusawa's Irresponsible Era of Japan (April 16) is a pinnacle of the 60s screwball "salaryman" comedies that saw television stars help revive a lagging film industry. And taboo buster Nagisa Oshima's A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs (aka Sing a Song of Sex) (April 19) uses song to approach the complex political climate of late 60s Japan, featuring pop singer Ichiro Araki as the lead.
Rounding out the focus on the peak years of the 50s and 60s, are Masahiro Makino's 1939 samurai operetta Singing Lovebirds (April 12), and, closing the series, two films that have rocketed the Japanese musical tradition to new heights in the 21st century: Takashi Miike's horror-comedy The Happiness of the Katakuris (April 23) and Tetsuya Nakashima's wildly acclaimed dark comedy Memories of Matsuko (April 23)—in both films vibrant musical numbers fuel the wrenching bleakness of the characters' lives.
The series also features the curator lecture Popular Song & Performance in the Japanese Musical Film on April 9, free to ticket holders with seats available on a first-come-first-served basis.
Admission: $12/$9 Japan Society members, seniors and students, except the screening of You Can Succeed, Too + Opening Night Party: $15/$12. Patrons who purchase tickets for at least three films in the same transaction receive $2 off each ticket (offer available only at the Japan Society Box Office or by telephone—not available online). Order tickets at www.japansociety.org or call or visit the Japan Society box office, Mon-Fri 11 am to 6 pm and weekends during gallery exhibitions 11:00 am to 5:00 pm, 212-715-1258.
For further information about the individual films and to order tickets, click here.